Accountability needed for scholarship fund

Published 12:00 am Saturday, November 29, 2014

By Larry Lee

You have to tip your hat to Bob Riley’s Alabama Opportunity Scholarship Fund and the great job they do with public relations. Hardly a day goes by without someone trying to convince us the best way to help kids in struggling schools is to take resources from them and give tax breaks to big business.

A few days ago the Alabama Policy Institute’s Cameron Smith, told us that Riley’s AOSF has awarded 2,800 scholarships and is the greatest thing since sliced bread.

Next came a column in The Birmingham News from the executive director of Riley’s group. She said they have awarded 2,700 scholarships through the Alabama Accountability Act and that too many folks opposed to it twist facts.

Of course, she had to take a political shot by saying the Alabama Education Association was opposed. However, she failed to mention so was the state school superintendent, state board of education, school board association and superintendents association.

(For the record I am not, nor have I even been, a member of AEA. I am retired and do not get a salary from anyone. I have driven more than 10,000 miles this year visiting schools and studying education. I buy my own gas.)

She implied that the $25 million taken from the state education trust fund for business tax breaks was no big deal and no one should squabble about sending this money to private schools.

She needs to go to Winston County and tell this to Amy Hiller, the principal at Meek Elementary. I will never forget the day I asked Amy if I were to give her a blank check, what she would spend it on. “I would run the heat and air-conditioning when it should be run,” she quickly replied. Her school system was scrimping every dollar it could and not having a cool or warm school was one of the consequences. But then I suppose the folks at AOSF probably don’t worry much about their utility bill.

You see, last year Riley’s SGO raised $17,825,594 from 25 donors. They keep five percent to run their program. That’s $891,279.70 to pay for power bills, salaries, slick videos, direct mail, robo calls, travel, food, lodging, etc.

When we pay our state income tax, it goes straight to the education trust fund–unless you are a contributor to an SGO. Then you send the money to them and in return, you get a dollar for dollar tax break on your state taxes.

This means that every penny of the $891,279.70 to run AOSF is a penny straight out of the ETF.

The fact that someone professing to be concerned about education would trivialize the value of $25 million when there are elementary classes with 30+ students, when neither libraries or technology have not been funded in six years and when rural school systems are struggling to run buses is very telling.

It is also telling that someone applauds taking money from 733,000 public school students to send only 2,700 of them to private schools.

Now let’s look at some “non-twisted” facts:

• In 2013, the Riley SGO raised $17.8 million and did not award a single scholarship, according to their annual report filed with the revenue department.

•The AAA was passed without input from Alabama educators. Legislative leadership boasted they kept professional educators in the dark. Would the legislature pass a law impacting business and not consult with the Business Council of Alabama or Manufacture Alabama?


• AAA has been ruled unconstitutional by a Montgomery circuit court. Thirty superintendents have filed a “friend of the court” brief supporting this decision. Only eight of them have failing schools.

• According to superintendents in 20 counties with 37 failing schools, only 40 students have received scholarships because of AAA.

Which begs the question: Who are these kids getting scholarships? Local school systems can’t find them, the state department of education can’t find them, the revenue department can’t find them.

Do we need an Amber Alert? Or will AOSF tell us who they are and what failing schools they came from?

Until they do, it’s all just more PR.

Larry Lee led the study, Lessons Learned from Rural Schools, and is a long-time advocate for public education and frequently writes about education issues.