There have been a lot of things said about the state’s legislative session that just ended. But no one is calling it a success (at least not anyone who wants to maintain any credibility).
From the legislature’s failure to pass a General Fund budget, to the Republicans’ inability to agree among themselves on a solution to the budget crisis, no one can say this legislative session was anything but a failure.
But while the budget and budget crisis have gotten the most attention, there’s been another story that recently made headlines that we should all be worried about: that the majority of scholarships awarded under the Accountability Act have not gone to kids in failing schools like they were supposed to.
When the Accountability Act was first passed in 2013, the Act’s supporter’s praised it as “historic.” They were quoted in the papers saying, “We made history for the many parents and children that are stuck in failing schools,” that, “This is about helping parents and children in the state of Alabama. That’s exactly what this is about. It’s about those failing systems finally having a chance,” and, “I’m so proud we have done this for the children of this state and especially the children who are in failing school systems and had no way out. Now, they have a way out.”
The Accountability Act was sold to the public as a tool meant to help kids in failing schools transfer to more successful schools. That was the word supporters used over and over again: failing schools.
But last week, Mike Cason with the Birmingham News reported that about 70 percent of the nearly 6,000 scholarships awarded under the Accountability Act went to kids who were never enrolled in a failing school and would not have attended a failing school if they enrolled in public school.
For the past year, these scholarship granting organizations have claimed they have been successful because of the number of scholarships they have given out. Now we know the truth: that their numbers are misleading because only 30 percent of the scholarships given were to kids in failing schools.
In fact, only half of the scholarships given out went to kids who were previously enrolled in public schools. The rest went to kids who were already attending private schools!
Even Alabama’s largest scholarship granting organization, the Alabama Opportunity Scholarship Fund (which is chaired by former Gov. Bob Riley), gave out $16.9 million dollars in scholarships, but only 37 percent of those scholarships went to kids who would have attended a failing public school.
When the most “successful” scholarship granting organization only gives a third of it’s scholarships to the kids who were meant to get ALL of the scholarships, that ought to be a red flag!
These scholarship-granting organizations may be “playing by the rules,” but what they are doing is an absolute abuse of the people’s trust and the intent of legislators (or at least the intent legislators publicly claimed).
Adding insult to injury, the same legislators who couldn’t pass a budget or come up with a solution to the budget crisis were somehow able to find time this year to pass another “fix” bill for the Accountability Act.
Never in my life have I seen a major piece of legislation that needed to be fixed more often than the Accountability Act. Every year since it was passed, the legislature has come back with a new bill to “fix” the Accountability Act, usually by raising the caps on tax credits claimed by contributors to scholarship granting organizations.
The first “fix” bill came just three months after the Act was passed. It hadn’t even gone into effect yet and they were already trying to “fix” it! They tried to pass another “fix” bill the very next year, though this one died in the Senate after being passed out of the House.
The third “fix” came this year when the legislature tried to once again raise the cap on total donations to scholarship granting organizations and extend their reporting deadlines. This “fix” was used to bailout Bob Riley’s Opportunity Scholarship Fund because they didn’t raise enough money to pay for all the scholarships they gave out.
And now we know that the majority of these scholarships weren’t even for kids “trapped in failing schools.”
The Accountability Act has been the legislature’s ultimate failure. It was sold as a tool to help kids in failing schools, but 70 percent of the scholarships have gone to kids in non-failing schools. The Accountability Act is now proven to be just another black mark in a growing list of legislative failures.
Rep. Craig Ford is a Democrat from Gadsden and the Minority Leader in the Alabama House of Representatives.