Friday, November 3, 2017

Craig Ford: Repealing the Accountability Act should be a priority for the legislature

  When the Alabama Legislature returns to Montgomery in January, you won’t hear a whole lot about education. What you will hear a lot about is prisons (since a federal court ordered the state to solve the problems with staffing and mental health) and social issues that legislators hope will benefit them in next year’s elections.

  And that’s a real shame because one of the most important things our state government is responsible for is providing a quality education for all – and not just some – of our children.

  While the education budget is in better shape than the General Fund budget (which funds everything that isn’t connected to education), the truth is that our education budget is still not where it ought to be.

  When you adjust for inflation, Alabama is spending less per child on education today than we were a decade ago. In 2006, we were spending the equivalent of $8,391 per student. In 2016, education spending equaled $8,070 per student.

  The exact amount varies by school district because of different levels of local taxes going to schools, but the bottom line is that kids and teachers today are being asked to do a lot more and are being given less money to do it with. In fact, only 11 states spend less per student than Alabama does.

  And the biggest thief of the education budget is the Alabama Accountability Act.

  In 2013, the Alabama Legislature passed the Accountability Act through a backroom process meant to keep the public from learning about the bill until it had already been signed into law.

  Sold to the public as a tool meant to “help poor kids who are stuck in failing schools just because of their zip code,” the reality is that the Accountability Act is nothing more than a publicly funded private school voucher program that has taken about $93 million out of our public schools.

  The reality is that many, if not most, of the scholarships that have been awarded are going to kids who were already attending private schools. And as of 2017, two-thirds of the kids receiving scholarships aren’t even zoned for a failing school, which was the whole point of the Accountability Act in the first place!

  The problems don’t end there. Of the 203 private schools that accept scholarship students, 38 percent are not accredited. And the real problem is that the whole program isn’t even overseen by the Department of Education. Any private school that wants to accept scholarship students has to get approval from… the Department of Revenue?

  What kind of sense does that make?

  No matter how you look at it, the Accountability Act has been an absolute failure from the beginning – and a costly one, at that!

  So far, our public schools have lost about $93 million because of the Accountability Act. The law says that up to $30 million each year can be diverted out of the education budget to pay for these scholarships that, by and large, aren’t even going to the kids who are supposed to be receiving them.

  It is true that simply throwing money at a problem won’t solve it. But investing money in real solutions can solve problems. For example, using that $93 million to hire more teachers would lower class sizes and the student-to-teacher ratio. This would mean that classes would be smaller (and therefore more manageable) and that kids could get more one-on-one time with their teacher.

  Another good use of that $93 million could have been investing in the state’s pre-K program.

  Alabama has one of the best pre-K programs in the country, and the results have been dramatic. The earlier we can expose kids to the classroom and what is expected of them in school, the better off they will be. I wish that every 4-year-old in Alabama could participate in pre-K (honestly, I wish the program started at age 3).

  That money could have been put to so much better use, and there’s absolutely no reason for future dollars to keep being wasted in this way.

  Repealing the Accountability Act ought to be a priority for the legislature in the coming legislative session. At the very least, the education budget committee should form an oversight committee to keep an eye on the program. The Accountability Act has failed to help the students it was supposed to help, and it is hurting more students by taking resources away from them. It’s time that legislators who supported the Accountability Act admit it has failed and give their support to solutions that have actually achieved real results.

  About the author: Representative Craig Ford represents Gadsden and Etowah County in the Alabama House of Representatives. He served as the House Minority Leader from 2010-2016.

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