Craig Ford - A new year, a new opportunity to right a wrong

January 8, 2016 chris
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New Years is a time of reflection and resolutions, a time for changes and fixing mistakes. With the state’s next legislative session beginning in less than a month, there’s a resolution I would like our state leaders to make: fix the problems with the Accountability Act.

The Accountability Act was sold to us as a way to give children trapped in failing schools a way to attend different schools. But now we know that the Accountability Act is not helping the children it was designed to help.

As reported by the Decatur Daily newspaper, nearly 100 students in Morgan and Limestone counties are using tax-credit-funded scholarships to attend private schools, but only one of those students comes from a public school that was considered failing under the Accountability Act.

This is certainly not what the law was intended for.

In the same article, Decatur City Schools Superintendent Ed Nichols said the Accountability Act was sold as a way to help kids in failing schools, but is truly nothing more than smoke and mirrors. He was quoted saying, “It was really designed to find a way to give money to kids already in private schools, and kids in failing schools would not or could not take advantage of it, and they haven’t.”

Superintendent Nichols is exactly right, because what’s happening in Morgan and Limestone counties is happening everywhere else in the state. In June, al.com reported that 70 percent of the 6,000 scholarships given out went to kids who would not have attended a failing school.

If the law isn’t helping those it was designed to help, it needs to go. It’s as simple as that.

Morgan County Schools Superintendent Bill Hopkins, Jr., said in the Decatur Daily article that he wasn’t aware of any students leaving his system under the Alabama Accountability Act. In fact, the article points out that private schools aren’t even required to accept students under the act.

So, if the non-failing schools can refuse students from failing schools and the overwhelming majority of scholarships given out are going to kids who aren’t and wouldn’t be attending a failing school, why have we not yet fixed or repealed the Accountability Act?

The best thing we could do to actually help kids in failing schools would be to repeal the Accountability Act entirely and put that money back into those schools where it belongs.

At the very least, legislators should admit that the Accountability Act isn’t working the way it is supposed to, and work together on a compromise that truly helps kids in failing schools.

To get the conversation started, I’ll offer my own compromise: we keep the Accountability Act with its tax credits for wealthy and corporate donors. But instead of their donations going to these “scholarship granting organizations” that are clearly disregarding the intent of the law, donors can get the same tax break for contributing to a publicly-owned fund that would then divide the money up equally among the failing schools. This way, the money is going to the kids who are actually in failing schools, and these failing schools would have more resources instead of less. With this money, these schools would have the ability to hire more teachers, invest in learning tools and purchase desperately needed basic classroom resources that many teachers currently are paying for with their own money.

The numbers don’t lie. The Alabama Accountability Act is not doing what it is meant to do. Legislators should admit this fact and work to fix it instead of continuing to waste tax dollars on more failed government. If legislators won’t repeal the Accountability Act, they should at least consider a compromise that puts those tax dollars back into the schools – and the children – that desperately need them. Legislators should hold themselves accountable for the Accountability Act and do what needs to be done to help kids who truly are in failing schools.

Craig Ford is a Democrat from Gadsden and the Minority Leader in the Alabama House of Representatives.