The recent furor about Governor Bentley’s decision to close offices around the state where locals can apply for a driver’s license is hardly unexpected. Once again we reinforced the national stereotype of how people perceive Alabama as mean-spirited and racist. Editorial writers and TV talking heads pontificated. We were part of the Democratic presidential debate. Someone organized a caravan through the Black Belt.
And politicians did what they do best– find a parade and rush to the front of it.
Which is all well, fine and good I suppose.
But if the uproar is about railing against social injustice, where were these same folks in 2013 when the Alabama legislature passed the Alabama Accountability Act? After all, this legislation is a far better example of losing our moral compass than closing the offices in question.
When this bill was passed the good citizens of this state were told over and over that it is was all about helping poor kids stuck in failing schools by their zip code. The act even required that the state department of education identify the bottom six percent of all schools according to their scores on the Alabama reading and math test and label them as “failing schools.”
Today there are 56 schools in 29 systems on this list. There are 21,333 students in these schools. More than 90 percent of them receive free-reduced lunches and more than 18,500 of them are black. Nineteen of the schools are in the Black Belt and the student body is 99 percent to 100 percent black in 15 of them. This law was passed by 51 white Republican house members and 22 white Republican senators. Not a single black member of either the house or senate voted for the accountability act.
Once we identified these failing schools, what did the law instruct us to do to help them?
- Add more teachers to reduce class size?
- Send in support staff from the state department?
- Give teachers and principals more professional development?
- Make sure their textbooks were up-to-date because at this time in 2013 the state had not funded new textbooks since 2008?
- Give them the resources to add technology and supporting infrastructure?
None of the above. All I heard was some legislative leadership say these schools “should work harder.” In other words, just keep doing what you’ve been doing and expect different results.
Of course, the law did set up a mechanism to divert tax revenues away from the Education Trust Fund to give scholarships to students in failing schools to attend private schools. How well did this work across the Black Belt? Poorly at best. Go ask superintendents such as Daniel Boyd in Lowndes County, John Heard in Perry County or Luke Hallmark in Marengo how many students left one of their failing schools for a private school. They are scarce as hen’s teeth.
Records from the Alabama Department of Revenue through June 30, 2015 show:
- Total funds diverted from ETF to scholarship funds: $50,015,800
- Total number of scholarships awarded: 6,663
- Total number of scholarships awarded to students already attending private schools: 1,250
- Total number of scholarships awarded to students in non-failing, public schools: 1,719
While there is no way to confirm under the present reporting system, the MAXIMUM number of kids either attending, or zoned to attend a failing school, who got a scholarship by June 30 was 3,695. This is an average of $13,536 per student diverted from the ETF to do what the supporters of the bill claimed it would do.
At the same time, the state is spending an average of $5,828 per student attending public schools. So someone thinks students going to private school are worth more than twice as much as those attending public schools.
Seems to me that much of our present righteous indignation is misdirected if we really are concerned about what is right and wrong.
Larry Lee led the study, Lessons Learned from Rural Schools, and is a long-time advocate for public education. email@example.com read his blog: larryeducation.com