Where Were You At Midnight?

The midnight I refer to is the one for Dec. 31, 2016.  Here’s hoping that you were celebrating with friends, or maybe already snug in bed.

While you were doing that, I feel confident in saying that I was probably the only soul in Alabama, or maybe the universe, who was sitting in front of a computer looking at the website of the Alabama Department of Revenue.  Why?  Because I was again checking to see how much money scholarship granting organizations collected from Alabama taxpayers in 2016.

To claim a tax deduction for money donated through the Alabama Accountability Act for vouchers for private schools, one must apply by the stroke of midnight on the last day of the year to revenue.  The moment the new year is here, the counter reloads, so if you tarry, you are too late.

The number for 2016 at this point is $20,266,987.  (This might be reduced a bit once revenue reviews all applicants.)  This is a total of $86,927,606 donated since the law was passed in 2013.  Since all of this money would have gone to the Education Trust Fund had it been paid in taxes, we have diverted $86.9 million from being available for public schools  In addition, a scholarship granting organization (SGO) may keep five percent of what they collect to administer and market their fund.  That totals $4.3 million.

Some history is useful for seeing how the law has basically underperformed from the outset.

The first version of the bill passed in 2013 capped total donations at $25 million.  That year $24,787,079 was collected.  Only $13,410,758 was collected in 2014.  So when the law was amended in 2015, the legislature allowed some donations of 2015 to be retroactive to the previous year.  But this only brought in $2,649,553 so the final total for the second year was $16,060,311.

The 2015 amendment increased the annual cap to $30 million.  However, the 2015 total of $25,813,229 was more than $4 million under the cap.  And 2016 was nearly $10 million under the cap.

Had contributions maxed out each year, the total would now be $115 million–not $86.9 million.

As we remember, the Alabama accountability Act was passed originally without the knowledge or input of the education community.  But the public was told repeatedly that the impact of AAA would be as miraculous as the parting of the Red Sea.  But like many proclamations coming from the Statehouse, this one too missed its mark.

While 13 different SGOs have registered with the state, there are only seven now in operation and only four have actually awarded any funds.  And two of these only gave a total of 77 last year.

The most recent accounting shows 3,821 Alabama students receiving vouchers in 2016.  Of these, only 1,225 are to students “zoned” for failing schools.  Yet we were told in 2013 that this law was all about “helping students stuck in failing schools by their zip codes.”  And it should be noted that a student “zoned” for a failing school is not the same as having attended a failing school.  It is difficult to get decent numbers as to how many students have actually used AAA to move from a failing school.  But they seem to be few and far between.

The two largest SGOs are the Alabama Opportunity Scholarship Fund and Scholarships for Kids.  The first was created by former Governor Bob Riley and today is managed by a Florida SGO, Stand Up For Kids.  In fact, of the seven members of this group’s board, four are from Florida.

Data shows these two use an entirely different approach to getting contributions.  AOF has collected $34,788,376 from 292 donors.  An average of $119,138 each.  On the other hand, Scholarships For Kids has raised $28,772,935 from 2,439 donors.  An average of $11,797.

According to the revenue department, as of Dec. 5, 2016 there were 192 private schools signed up to participate in AAA–78 of which are listed as non-accredited.

And to cap off this review, it must be noted that a study by the Institute for Social Science Research at the University of Alabama last fall concluded that there was little difference in academic achievement for students on an AAA voucher in private schools and their counterparts in public schools.

It all comes down to this.  The next time the folks in the legislature tell us they are parting the Red Sea, don’t throw away your boat paddle.

 

 

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