Taking issue with words of former superintendent

Published 12:00 am Saturday, January 2, 2016


My friend Joe Morton spent 42 years working in Alabama public schools, the last seven as state superintendent. Today he is chairman and president of the Business Education Alliance, an affiliate of the Business Council of Alabama.

Because of this background I did a double take when I saw a recent opinion piece he wrote lauding the Alabama Accountability Act. He said: “Change began in 2013 with passage of the important Alabama Accountability Act. With this law, Alabama joined 12 other states on a new path toward education modernization and excellence.

“The law provides the opportunity for low-income students to apply for tax credit scholarships that are funded by individual or corporate taxpayers and administered by scholarship-granting organizations. Virtually all of the scholarships in 2014 went to children who qualified for free or reduced-price lunches.”

I would not have been more surprised had he said Auburn’s football team had a great season this year. (We are both Auburn grads.)

Since Joe does not provide any facts to back his contention, let’s look at some.

This law was written specifically (we were told) to help kids in schools the law requires the state education department label as “failing.”

By and large, this has not been the case. Morton was once superintendent of the Sumter County system. So he knows about the Black Belt and its education challenges.

There are nine “failing schools” in Sumter, Greene, Hale and Marengo counties. They have 1,904 students, nearly all of them African-Americans. Smack in the middle of this cluster is ONE private school participating in the AAA scholarship program. West Alabama Christian School in Demopolis operated by Fairhaven Baptist Church. It has just more than 100 students, only 10 percent black. They have three students on scholarships from the Alabama Opportunity Scholarship Fund.

These numbers show that in this case, AAA was a complete failure. It is hard to imagine any public educator in west Alabama calling AAA “important.”

The legislature amended AAA last spring to say that now it is all about “educational choice.” And in the entire 27 pages of the amended version you only find “failing schools” mentioned twice, while “taxpayer” is used 24 times.

So AAA is apparently more about tax breaks than education. Donors to a scholarship granting organization get a dollar for dollar tax credit against their state tax liability. They give $100,000 to go to private school scholarships and the state treats this as if they paid $100,000 in taxes. Since such taxes fund the Education Trust Fund, a $100,000 contribution is $100.000 diverted from ETF.

Look at it this way. Corporation XYZ is trying to figure out what to do with $100,000 at year’s end. Standing in front of them are two school kids, one from a public school, one from a private. Both have their hand stuck out. XYZ gives the private school student $100,000, the public school student walks away empty-handed. And this is “important” legislation?

What about scholarships? In 2014 there were 5,792 given. Records show that 1,067 went to students already enrolled in a private school. The public was never told this would be one of the outcomes of this “important” bill. And 1,709 scholarships went to students “zoned” for failing schools. Not attending, but zoned. We have no clue how many students were actually attending a “failing school.”

In 2015 3,587 scholarships were awarded–a decrease of 2,205 from the year before. Yet, the legislation states that once a student gets a scholarship, they are eligible to keep it until they graduate or reach the age of 19. Apparently a large number of scholarships were not renewed. Which may be why 37 students who attended Ellwood Academy in Selma in 2014, enrolled in Selma city schools in August.

I respect Joe Morton and salute his years of service. But calling the accountability act “important” is a leap of faith I cannot make.

Larry Lee led the study Lessons Learned from Rural Schools and is a longtime advocate for public education. larrylee133@gmail.com. Read his blog: larryeducation.com