Is the Accountability Act helping our children?

By Craig FordBy Craig Ford

As the new school year has begun, the Accountability Act has once again made its way into the headlines of newspapers across Alabama.

The Accountability Act was sold to the public as giving families with children “trapped in a failing school” the opportunity to claim a $3,500 tax credit to send their children to a better-performing private school.

Federal law already allowed these families the option of transferring their children to a better-performing public school, so the Accountability Act was passed specifically to make it easier for children to transfer to a private school.

Most of the news reports that you saw this week were about the lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). The SPLC is arguing that the Accountability Act is unfair because it only helps some children enrolled in failing schools to transfer to a better-performing private school.

Supporters of the Accountability Act have countered that the SPLC’s argument is equivalent to saying, “if we can’t help all the children then we shouldn’t help any of them.”

To me, these arguments are focused on concepts. And there is certainly a place for those arguments. But what I am interested in is the actual results. Because the only way we can really know if the Accountability Act will help these kids is to see if these families are actually taking advantage of it.

Now that the school year has started back, the numbers have come in, and we can finally answer the question of how many children who are zoned for a failing school have actually transferred to a better-performing private school.

According to the numbers released by the state Department of Education, only 51 children in Alabama transferred from a public school to a private school this year. That is the total number of transfers, including kids who transferred from non-failing public schools to private schools.

That’s right! Out of more than one million children under the age of 18 in the state of Alabama enrolled in nearly 1,500 public schools throughout the state, only 51 of them transferred to a private school.

So, has the Accountability Act helped the thousands of children enrolled in failing public schools to transfer to a better-performing private school of their choice?

Clearly it hasn’t.

So why has the Accountability Act, which Republican leaders called “historic” and “life-altering,” failed so spectacularly?

It could be any number of reasons. Many of the kids enrolled in failing public schools come from low-income areas. These families can’t afford to send their children to private school even with a $3,500 tax credit. Especially since the average cost of sending one child to private school in Alabama is $10,000 per year.

The tax credit was also doomed to fail because families cannot claim it until the end of the year. If they couldn’t afford a private school before, they will not be able to afford one now and wait for the payoff at the end of the year.

But these children also can’t transfer to private schools because only eight private schools in the entire state have agreed to accept these students.

When the Republican leadership drafted the Accountability Act, they did so in secret and without consulting a single educator, school administrator, superintendent, board of education member, or even the state’s superintendent of education. Perhaps if they had at least spoken with administrators of the state’s private schools, they could have written it in such a way that more private schools would have been willing to participate.

But instead, state leaders decided that they know better than our educators and school administrators. And that is kind of like a sick person saying, “I know more than my doctor does! I’ll just treat this illness myself.”

The Accountability Act clearly is a failed piece of legislation. The only solution is to repeal it and start over with the original version of education reform that was supported by educators, Republicans and Democrats.

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