It was a touching story that provided a needed gut-check on the policy debates over the Alabama Accountability Act.
The article — published Wednesday in the Mobile Press-Register and immediately broadcast statewide by Republicans defending their controversial law — told the story of a young mother who was grateful for school choice.
Dig a bit deeper, however, and the story underlined the failure of a law that is unlikely to provide school choice and will damage the public schools that remain the only option for almost all Alabama children.
Headlined, “Alabama Accountability Act a lifeline for one Montgomery family,” the story focused on a 5-year-old autistic child, Isaac Rus. His mother, Angie Rus, had been distraught over her son’s limited options when he enters kindergarten next year. He is assigned to a failing school and she does not like the public magnet schools which he could also attend. She has not applied to a private school and may home-school her child, but the prospect of a tax credit to help with tuition is enough to convince her to study private-school options.
By putting a face on the policy debate, the story performed a service. Alabamians may disagree over whether the best use of limited funds is to fix failing public schools or to subsidize private-sector choices, but the status quo is unacceptable. Every child deserves a good education, and some public schools are failing to provide it.
An analysis of whether the Accountability Act will provide the lifeline the Montgomery mother expects was beyond the scope of the story, but is important in evaluating the law.
The first problem is that she probably will not be eligible for the tax credit.
The law that passed Monday gives parents a right to a tax credit “to reimburse the parent for costs associated with transferring the student from a failing school.” Another provision limits credits to those who were assigned or enrolled in a failing school, but “subsequently transferred” to a private school. These provisions have been highlighted frequently in the debate over whether students already enrolled in private schools are entitled to the tax credit.
The argument Gov. Robert Bentley makes — and the one relied upon by legislators in compiling the Education Trust Fund budget — is this means a student actually had to attend a failing school the previous year in order to be eligible for the tax credit.
The alternative interpretation of the law would require the state to provide tax credits to families of students who already are enrolled in private schools. Estimates vary, but this would deplete the Education Trust Fund by over $25 million for students who not only have the choice of attending a private school, but already are exercising that choice.
Bentley’s view, though, is that the law only allows the Revenue Department to issue tax credits to the families of students already in failing schools.
The problem for Angie Rus is that her child has never been enrolled in a failing school. Her son, therefore, cannot transfer from a failing school. Bentley’s interpretation — which he claims also is the Revenue Department’s interpretation — means no parent of a kindergartner is eligible for the credit, because no kindergartner transferred from a failing school. Also ineligible, in their first year, are any students who move into a failing-school zone. Indeed, no student is eligible for the credit in the first year his school is deemed failing, because he will not be transferring “from a failing school.” If a student’s school is not failing in first grade but is deemed failing in second, it will not be until third grade that the student can transfer from a failing school and claim the tax credit.
Other issues further complicate the Rus family’s feel-good story.
The law specifically states that no private school has any obligation to accept a transfer student. Many schools already have said they will not accept transfers because they are worried state oversight will come with the tax credit. While Angie Rus may find a private school she likes, the school may not accept her child.
If her autistic child needs special services, the benefits of the Accountability Act diminish even more. The law specifically provides that the public school system — which already lost funding because of the tax credit — remains obligated to provide all special services to students with disabilities after they transfer. Even if a private school accepts her child, therefore, Rus may be shuttling the child back to the public school every day for special services.
The broad dispute between Democrat and Republican legislators seems to be on the best method of improving educational opportunities for children. Most Democrats prefer improving public schools. Most Republicans prefer tax-subsidized alternatives to public schools, such as the tax-credit plan created by the Accountability Act or charter schools.
The Rus story is a reminder that either approach — investment in public education or school choice — could provide benefits to students who desperately need them.
It also is a story, however, that demonstrates the miserable failure of the Accountability Act in advancing either strategy. It drains tens of millions of dollars from an already underfunded public school system, undermining any effort to improve public education in the state. It does so, however, without providing meaningful school choice.
Republicans won a supermajority in both houses of the Legislature. They had a right to pursue their preferred strategy of school choice.
They also, however, had an obligation to pursue that strategy responsibly. Belatedly, several Republican lawmakers realized the Accountability Act managed to gut public schools without providing the promised benefit of school choice. Bentley — who signed the first version of the Accountability Act — recognized his mistake and tried to delay implementation for two years, which would have given the Legislature a chance to repair the damage. Several senators who initially voted for the law agreed with Bentley, including Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur.
The Legislature ignored the protests and overrode Bentley’s executive amendment.
Parents like Angie Rus were left with the worst possible result. The muddled law removes any possibility that the failing school to which her child was assigned will improve. It will likely decline, along with excellent public schools, as it cuts teachers and programs to pay for the Accountability Act. Yet Isaac Rus is unlikely to receive the promised benefit of school choice.
The problem with the Accountability Act is not that it promotes school choice. The problem is that it damages the public schools that almost all Alabama children attend, and does so without any meaningful benefit.