Wednesday, June 19, 2013

School vouchers face reality in Alabama

When legislators passed the Alabama Accountability Act this year, the law was hailed as a chance to give students in low-performing schools vouchers to transfer to better schools. To identify low-performing K-12 schools, the State Department of Education listed 78 schools that were in the bottom six percent of schools in three of the past six years. The reality of the voucher law hit yesterday when Alabama officials made clear that most of the students in the listed schools will not be able to transfer to better public schools. Of the 78 schools on the "failing schools" list, 25 are under either a federal desegregation order or litigation, which means transfers in and out of those schools will be governed by court orders. Other public schools nearby may also be in the "failing" category. And the other reality is that there may also be no nearby private school to transfer to. For example, one of the failing schools is Bullock County High School. The nearest private school is Conecuh Springs Christian School, where all but ten of the white students in Bullock County go. Conecuh Springs' principal says that her school could take about 20-30 of Bullock County's 1,453 students, but for the rest, the nearest private school is an hour away.

Meanwhile, the demographics of the seventy-eight schools identified as "failing" by the Alabama Department of Education are out, and the schools are in predominately black or Latino areas. Of the 78, reports, only one school has a predominately white student body. One.

But could students use vouchers at private schools? Looking at the average price of private school tuition nationally and locally, probably not. Vouchers in Alabama will come in the form of tax credits, which means parents have to pay upfront for private school tuition. Most of the children in the state's failing schools are living at poverty level (for example, the lowest percentage of children receiving free or reduced meals in the identified failing schools is 78%). Families at the poverty line will not have the $500-$1,000 sign up fees required at most private schools or the upfront private tuition of $3,500-$10,000, plus book, meals, and other fees.

During the school voucher debates, Sweden was cited as a model universal choice/school voucher program. But the Swedish voucher system is a long way from Alabama's law: in Sweden, schools take children on a first-come, first-served basis and do not charge upfront fees. Sweden's schools, at least on the face of the law, have to take students as they apply. Alabama's schools are free to say no to transferring students with school vouchers and not necessarily for discriminatory reasons. Many educators feel that student success is increased when class sizes are small; accepting a large number of new transfers will alter that balance.  Read more about the Alabama Accountability Act here. Detailed information is also available in the Arise Citizen Policy Project's report on the troubled birth of the Act and predictions for its future here.


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