Saturday, May 24, 2014

Cameron Smith: The Accountability Act gets personal

  Since its enactment in 2013, the Alabama Accountability Act has been a focal point in Alabama politics. The law added flexibility from certain state education requirements for traditional public schools, provided tax credits for parents looking to transfer their children out of failing schools, and created a tax credit scholarship program.

  The law generated significant controversy as Republicans quickly and forcefully passed the Accountability Act over the objections of Democrats and the Alabama Education Association (AEA).

  Since then, opponents have attacked the law and its supporters at every turn. Among other barbs, the AEA has claimed, "Students in the poorest schools in the poorest districts are, in fact, punished most under the Accountability Act."

  The critics of the Accountability Act should meet Gloria McMeans and her son Keeynaad.

  Keeynaad was enrolled in a Birmingham public school, but Gloria quickly realized it was not meeting his educational needs. Keeynaad was bored in the classroom and eventually spent much of his time in the front office.

  Gloria was far more determined to improve Keeynaad’s educational future than many parents, and she made personal sacrifices to create educational opportunity for her son. She moved her family to Elyton Village in Birmingham, a public housing community a stone’s throw away from Legion Field. The move freed up resources to pay for a better education, but some months she was left with a choice between meeting basic needs and supporting Keeynaad’s schooling.

  Until the enactment of the Accountability Act, Gloria and Keeynaad’s story was emblematic of the breadline approach to education forced on many lower-income citizens in Alabama. For generations, the same one-size-fits-all education model has underserved many of Alabama’s most vulnerable, and many in those communities have been left with the impression that they should be glad to have any state-funded education at all.

  Alabama’s education establishment has regularly fought against creating more education choices for parents and children like Gloria and Keeynaad. Even the idea that Alabama might embrace multiple approaches to public education continues to be branded as an "attack on public education."

  The purpose of public education is to provide meaningful opportunities for all children in Alabama. Traditional public education may be an excellent option for many, but children learn in different ways. If the one available method of educating is not meeting the needs of many students, what could be more of an attack on public education than rejecting virtually every attempt to create new education models to meet the needs of those children?

  Even with the aggressive political tactics that cast a negative light on the Alabama Accountability Act, the law has created educational options for students like Keeynaad. That educational choice has now become part of Alabama’s public education and taking it away is a full-out assault on Keeynaad’s future and that of other children taking the opportunity created by the law.

  School choice does not undermine public education where public education is serving Alabama’s children effectively. In the best performing public school districts around the state, parents have little interest in sending their children to another school. At the same time, particularly for lower-income Alabamians, school choice means hope for a brighter future.

  Gloria now has that hope, and she does not want her son "to have a limitation" of a poor education. Perhaps more importantly, Gloria realizes that the options created by the Accountability Act help her "keep [her] son out of prison…[and] out of the graveyard."

  If you ask opponents of the Alabama Accountability Act about the law, they will talk about politics, they will call for more spending on the same model Alabama has had for decades, and they will suggest that alternatives are dangerous for Alabama’s children.

  If you ask Gloria, she will smile and tell you about her son and his future.

  About the author: Cameron Smith writes a regular column for Alabama Media Group. He is vice president and general counsel for the Alabama Policy Institute, an independent, non-profit research and education organization dedicated to the preservation of free markets, limited government and strong families. He may be reached at camerons[at] or on Twitter @DCameronSmith.

  This article was published by the Alabama Policy Institute.

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