Monday, August 12, 2013
National Conference of State Legislatures.
Today, we look at the implications of one of those laws in Alabama. Alabama’s school tax-credit plan continues to be a work in progress. Significant legal roadblocks exist before many of the students in “failing” schools can transfer. Today, the press reported that because only eight schools may be removed from the failing schools list each year, it does not matter if any other the other 70 schools on the list pull their scores up to “passing.” Because of the eight-school cap, schools must remain on the “failing” list whether their students pass the state's language and math proficiency tests. In short, for many students at Alabama schools branded as failing, the law gives them no way out to better ones.
The Alabama Accountability Act allows families with children at failing schools to receive a $3,500 tax credit to use to offset the cost of tuition at a private school or a non-failing public school. To implement the plan, the state came up with a list of 78 failing schools, overwhelmingly located in black or law-income districts. Schools were placed on the “failing” under secret formulas created for the Act without input from educators and with minimal input (and under protest) from the State Board of Education. Lawmakers refuse to release the raw data or the comparison scores from “passing” schools. The list is essential to trigger the tax credit program, but some schools appear to have been placed on the list despite gains that they have made in the three years since the data was collected. Last Thursday, al.com (Alabama’s online news outlet) identified eight schools that recorded two years of test scores that met state guidelines for success but were nevertheless placed on the failing schools list. “Another four schools posted three straight years of high marks,” al.com reports. Those schools are on the list because the Alabama Accountability Act measures scores from the last six years to determine if a school is "failing."
Unexpected roadblocks for students to transfer to private schools are emerging. In 25 of the 70 schools, student transfers are restricted by federal desegregation decrees. Also, the Act stipulates that private schools do not have to accept transferring students. The state learned that few private schools in Alabama were ready to do so this fall—statewide, 36 private schools have agreed to accept applications for new students under the plan. That leaves large sections of the state with no private school option for transferring students. Because private school tuition for middle and high school typically is more than twice as much as the $3,500 tax credit, there are also practical problems for low-income families to afford private school tuition. The tax credit will arrive months after the school bill is due, and tuition will not be the only costs: families will also have to cover lunches and transportation that public schools provide free.
The Alabama Accountability Act has been troubled from its birth. The original law started as a nine-page local school flexibility bill, but now it appears that the first bill was a sleight-of-hand. In two hours in a legislative committee those nine pages grew to a 27-page “school choice” law. Most legislators, including some in the Republican party, only saw the new bill moments before voting on it. Some GOP legislators (whose party was pushing the bill) expressed concern about its goals and effectiveness. After Alabama Governor Robert Bentley ran the numbers, he became concerned that the state could not afford the promised tax credits. Gov. Bentley, also a GOP member, vetoed the Act and instead proposed a two-year delay before implementation. The state legislature overrode the Governor’s veto.
Lawmakers have dismissed suggestions that the Act is part of a disguised strategy to direct public money for students who are not in failing schools to transfer to private schools and, eventually, to extend the law to give tax credits to families of students currently in private school. Whatever lawmakers’ intentions were, the effects are becoming clearer: the Act is not likely to provide many choices for students in "failing" schools.