Dishonesty is the language of Alabama politics. If voters dreamed that changed in 2010 when the GOP wrested control from Democrats, the debate over the Alabama Accountability Act should wake them up.
The falsehoods are rampant, and they come not just from the lawmakers defending their votes for a bill that would provide a combination of tax credits and vouchers allowing students to transfer from “failing” schools to private or religious ones.
The duplicity began with the bill’s passage. GOP lawmakers negotiated with education officials over the details of a bill that gave local school districts more flexibility from state requirements long after they knew they would never vote on the bill. As planned, they replaced the flexibility bill with one three times as long and with a new name.
Alabama Education Association then launched an ad campaign. Among its questionable claims about the bill was one that was clearly false, that the bill creates charter schools. It was an unusual claim not because it was false — AEA’s political dialogue too often is — but because it hurt AEA’s cause.
Charter schools, as the name implies, are bound by the terms of a charter. In well-drafted legislation, this is the document that ensures private schools are held accountable for the tax dollars that fund them. The Accountability Act, House Bill 84, creates no such accountability in the schools that receive the public’s money.
Such reflexive falsehoods may explain why GOP lawmakers are willing to damage public schools in their effort to weaken AEA.
State Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, tells everyone who will listen that the bill will not affect Decatur High Developmental — a “failing” school because of standardized test scores. Her reasoning is that she hopes to have input into the state Department of Education’s implementation of a law she sponsored last session, which assigns letter grades to every school.
If she is sincere, then she does not understand the bill that received her vote. The bill creates four categories in which a school is deemed failing. One of those is the not-yet-implemented grading system, but Decatur Developmental “fails” under other categories. Collins’ grading law can add schools to the list of failing schools, but not subtract them.
Moreover, the bill affects every public school in the state, even award-winning ones like Woodmeade and Frances Nungester elementary schools. This is so because the cost of sending children to private schools comes not just from failing schools, but from the Education Trust Fund.
The Education Department will have somewhere between $59 million and $367 million less to work with after the bill takes effect. That drop in an already underfunded school system — exacerbated by a loss of federal funding for students who transfer — will harm every public school in the state.
Legislators also claim parents who send their children to a private or religious school are merely spending money they otherwise would pay in taxes.
In fact, except for families with an income of well over $70,000, other taxpayers will be footing the bill. The subsidy will reduce money available for all public schools.
If Collins and other lawmakers do not understand the bill, they need to do their homework. If they understand it but persist in their misrepresentations, the issue is more serious.
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