My friend Joe Morton spent 42 years working with public schools in Alabama. The last seven he served as State Superintendent, retiring in 2011. Today he is Chairman and President of the Business Education Alliance, an affiliate of the Business Council of Alabama.
Because of this background I did a double take when I saw a recent opinion piece he wrote in which he lauded the Alabama Accountability Act. Here is what he said:
Change began in 2013 with passage of the important Alabama Accountability Act. With this law, Alabama joined 12 other states on a new path toward education modernization and excellence.
The law provides the opportunity for low-income students to apply for tax credit scholarships that are funded by individual or corporate taxpayers and administered by scholarship-granting organizations. Virtually all of the scholarships in 2014 went to children who qualified for free or reduced-price lunches.
Honest, I could not have been more surprised had he said that Auburn’s football team had a great season this year. (We are both Auburn grads.)
Since Joe does not provide any facts to back his contention, let’s look at some.
This law was written specifically (we were told) to help kids in those schools the law requires the state education department label as “failing.” In fact, the 2013 legislation says on page 2 of the codified version that the intent of the bill was to help such students.
By and large, this has not been the case. Joe Morton became superintendent of the Sumter County system when he was only 27 years old. So he knows about the Black Belt and its education challenges. Let’s look at these region and how AAA has helped them.
There are nine “failing schools” in Sumter, Greene, Hall and Marengo counties. They have 1,904 students. Info from the state department shows these schools have nearly all black students. Smack in the middle of this cluster is ONE private school participating in the AAA scholarship program. West Alabama Christian School in Demopolis operated by Fairhaven Baptist Church. It has just over 100 students, only 10 percent of them black. They have three students on scholarships from the Alabama Opportunity Scholarship Fund.
Putting the numbers together tells us as far as helping these 1,904 students, AAA was a complete failure. It is hard to imagine any public educator in west Alabama calling AAA “important.”
It should also be noted that the legislature came back in their 2015 regular session and amended AAA to say that now it is all about “educational choice.” And in the entire 27 pages of the amended version I can only find “failing schools” mentioned twice. By comparison, “taxpayer” is used 24 times.
The reason for this is because AAA is apparently much more about tax breaks than education. Donors to a scholarship granting organization get a dollar for dollar tax credit against their state tax liability. So they give $100,000 to an SGO to go to private school scholarships and the state treats this as if they paid $100,000 in taxes. And since such taxes collected by the state fund the Education Trust Fund, a $100,000 contribution is that much diverted from ETF.
Look at it this way. Corporation XYZ is trying to figure out what to do with $100,000 at year’s end. Standing in front of them are two school kids, one from a public school, one from a private. Both have their hand stuck out. XYZ gives the private school student $100,000, the public school student walks away empty-handed. And this is “important” legislation?
In 2013 all SGOs got $24,787,079 in contributions. So that was $24.7 million public schools would not see. But in 2014, the SGOs only collected $13,311,357–well short of the $25 million cap.
So the legislature, not wanting to forget about tax breaks, said in the amended bill this year that donors could still give money and have it count towards their 2014 tax liability. This could be up to an additional $11,589,242 (the gap between what was raised and the cap.) But like most AAA projections by legislative leadership, this too fell well short as only $2.6 million was donated this year and counted for 2014.
The amended bill also raised the annual cap from $25 million to $30 million. As of Dec. 14, 2015, only 19.7 million has been given this year (though there is still time for accountants and tax layers to sharpen their pencils and reach the $30 million cap.)
And what about scholarships? In 2013 there were 20 given. This jumped to 5,792 in 2014. Of these, records show that 1,067 went to students who were already enrolled in a private school. The public was never told this would be one of the outcomes of the “wonderful” accountability act. And 1,709 scholarships went to students “zoned” for failing schools. Not attending, but zoned. So some of the kids in private schools who got a scholarship may have also be counted as a “failing school” student.
Info so far in 2015 shows only 3,587 scholarships awarded–a decrease of 2,205 from the year before. Yet, the legislation clearly states that once a student gets a scholarship, they are eligible to keep it until they graduate or reach the age of 19. Apparently a large number of scholarships were not renewed. Which may be why 37 students who attended Ellwood Academy private school in Selma in 2014, enrolled in Selma city schools in August.
I respect Joe Morton and salute his years of service to our public schools. But calling the accountability act “wonderful” is a leap of faith I cannot make.