When this legislative session began back in early March, Senate Pro Tem Del Marsh hit the floor running with a charter school bill and an amendment to the Alabama Accountability Act. The charter bill took less than three weeks to get passed. But the amendment to AAA hit some bumps in the road, one of the major ones being that senators who wanted to know how many students who were attending “failing” schools had received scholarships could not get a straight answer.
From the outset, Marsh claimed that it was imperative to move quickly to pass the amendment so that scholarship granting organizations (SGO) could get busy raising money to meet their financial obligations. He said that litigation in 2014 prevented donors from contributing because they were uncertain if the law would be declared unconstitutional.
(Montgomery County Circuit Judge Gene Reese ruled AAA unconstitutional on May 28, 2014. This was overturned by the state Supreme Count on March 2. 2015.)
However, facts don’t support the Marsh claim, except for the Alabama Opportunity Scholarship Fund that was created by Bob Riley and is a subsidiary of a Florida SGO. The annual reports filed with the state Revenue Department in 2014 show that all SGOs raised a total of $24,787,079 in 2013. Of this, the Riley group raised $17,825,595, meaning the other organizations raised a total of $6,961,485. (Info from the Florida SGO shows that $14 million of the amount raised by Riley came from two contributors.)
The 2014 total for all SGOs was $13,414,758. But newspaper reports indicated that whereas AOSF raised $17.8 million the year before, they only raised $641,000 in 2014. This means the other groups raised $12.7 million–nearly double what they raised the year before. This leaves one to wonder why the threat of litigation only impacted the Riley SGO and not others.
It has now been nearly three months since the Supreme Court ruling. But with the year almost halfway done, as of May 28, records on the Revenue Department web site show all nine SGOs have only raised $10,812,821. The present cap is $25 million, but the original Marsh bill wanted to increase this to $35 million. And the most interesting thing about the total raised so far in 2015 is that $10,007,500 of it came between April 16 and 19. It would appear that someone wrote a check for $10 million in mid-April, meaning all other contributions only equal $812,821.
In the early going Marsh also repeatedly said that the amendment needed adopting by May 1 so that SGOs could begin notifying scholarship students that their scholarship would be renewed. (The present legislation states that once a student gets a scholarship they can keep it until they graduate or reach age 19.)
While no numbers are presently verifiable because of the lack of accountability in the accountability act, the Riley SGO claims to have awarded more than 2,800 scholarships in 2014. This is where things get dicey. If we assume an average scholarship was $5,000, then the Riley SGO invested $14 million in 2014. And since scholarships are renewable, these means they needed to raise a like amount in 2014 to cover their obligations. However, they say they only raised $641,000.
So in 2013 and 2014, AOSF raised a total of $18,466,594. If you assume they have raised all that has been raised so far in 2015, that totals $29,279,415. (But since there are nine SGOs in all, this is highly unlikely.) And since an SGO keeps five percent for “administrative” fees, that is an additional $1.4 million not available for scholarships.
Given what the numbers show us, it is understandable why Marsh was wanting quick action. (Plus he received campaign contributions last year of $15,980 from Bob Riley’s PAC, $116,000 from the BCA PAC, $20,409 from StudentsFirst out of California and $15,495 from the Alabama Federation for Children, all of which are strong supporters of vouchers and charters.)
And though the rails were well greased for the charter bill, the Marsh amendment passed the House Education Ways & Means Committee on April 16 and stalled. It did not come before the full House until May 28–way beyond the May 1 deadline the Senate Pro Tem said needed to be met.
Opponents of the amendment had several concerns. One being why should the SGO cap be raised since it did not come close to being met in 2014. (When donors contribute to an SGO, they get a dollar for dollar tax credit on their Alabama taxes. Since this is money that normally goes to the Education Trust Fund, every dollar that goes to a scholarship is a dollar that doesn’t fund public education. Senator Greg Reed was successful in lowering the cap from $35 million to $30 million.)
Another concern is the fact that the amendment says that an SGO can award up to $6,000 for an elementary scholarship, $8,000 for middle school and $10,000 for high school. As mentioned in an earlier post, educator Hope Zeanah of Baldwin County questioned why these numbers were so high, when the average support per student in the state is presently $5,828. When the bill came before to the House floor, Rep. Alan Baker, a former educator, was ready with an amendment to lower these amounts to $5,000, $7,000 and $9,000. Marsh had agreed to this during his appearance before the House committee.
However, Rep. Ken Johnson of Moulton moved to table the Baker amendment and his motion prevailed 52-17. So obviously Johnson and 51 others think a private school student is worth at least $4,172 more than a public school student. It’s noteworthy that Rep. Johnson received $33,802 from the Riley PAC in 2014, $18,500 from BCA, $2,500 from Speaker Mike Hubbard’s STORM PAC and $1,000 from StudentsFirst. The latter contribution came on Dec. 9, well after Johnson’s re-election on Nov. 4.
It is a tangled web for certain. One that appears to be more controlled by campaign contributions than genuine concern for the children of Alabama.