By Adam Smith
— This story ran in the Tuesday, March 5 edition of the News Courier. It details the bill signed into law by Gov. Bentley today ...
School leaders across the state are still fuming over a bill passed last week that will provide tax credits to parents who want to move their children from a failing public school to a private school.
“Tyranny & Deceit” was the headline of Monday’s edition of the Alabama School Journal, the official publication of the Alabama Education Association.
The AEA is encouraging Alabamians to call Gov. Robert Bentley’s office to express frustration over how House Bill 84 was passed on Thursday night. The group contends HB 84 was “unread by almost all members of the Legislature” and represents a “complete betrayal of public trust.”
Education leaders said Bentley damaged valuable relationships when he worked in private with the Legislature’s Republican leaders to expand a school flexibility bill the educators backed into a tax credit bill they opposed.
“There is no question some bridges will have to be rebuilt,” Eric Mackey, executive director of the School Superintendents of Alabama, told the Associated Press Friday.
Bentley said he didn’t consult the state school superintendent and other education leaders about rewriting the legislation at the last minute because they would have opposed it and likely killed it.
The House and Senate passed different versions of the flexibility bill, prompting formation of a Republican-dominated conference committee Thursday afternoon to come up with a compromise. Instead, the committee tripled the bill in size by adding tax credits for parents who move their children from a failing public school to another public school or private or parochial school. For those who can’t afford the move, the bill sets up a scholarship program, and businesses and individuals can receive tax credits for contributing.
Sally Howell, executive director of the Alabama Association of School Boards, said she worked in good faith with Republican leaders and got “bushwhacked” by the tax credit addition.
Democrats, who comprise only about one-third of the Legislature, complained of a “bait and switch” and said Republicans were giving private schools a new way to recruit the best athletes from public schools. Their shouting and finger-pointing produced lively videos for YouTube, but they were too few to slow down the bill. The House approved it 51-26, and the Senate 22-11 on party-line votes.
“I don’t think there was a rules violation there,” said Rep. Dan Williams, R-Athens. “We have substitute bills all the time. In this case, it was a matter of the majority getting done what they wanted to get done.”
Limestone County Schools Superintendent Dr. Thomas Sisk said his biggest complaint about the bill was the process in which it was passed. He added that while the voucher system could have negative implications for the school system, there are benefits to the flexibility portion of the bill.
“I like the idea of 1,080 (school) hours as opposed to 180 days,” he said.
Like the AEA, however, Sisk was not pleased by the process in which the bill was approved.
“You elect government officials to represent you, and not the needs of special interest groups,” he said. “There’s that perception that these organizations have in the past been able to pull strings that have given their members some advantage.”
A failing school?
The bill said failing schools include those in the bottom 10 percent on statewide reading and math assessment scores, with three consecutive D’s or one F on the school grading card, or labeled “persistently low-performing” on the state’s School Improvement Grant application.
The 10 percent provision in the bill automatically means that 150 of Alabama’s 1,499 public schools qualify, Mackey said.
The tax credits that parents can take are unlimited, but the tax credits for business and individuals and businesses donating to the scholarship program are capped at $25 million annually.
Bentley, who plans to sign the bill today, said failing schools have no impetus now to improve, but that the legislation will make failing schools get better because they risk losing tax dollars and students.
“Take away all of this trust stuff. Take away all of these folks that are upset. I don’t care. Let me tell you what I care about. I care about those children who are failing in those schools, and they have no way out,” he said Friday.
There remains the question, however, of what constitutes a failing school and under what guidelines is a school determined to be failing. In the county schools system, Clements is the only high school in the system not in School Improvement status, based on benchmarks determined by Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP. East Limestone High is in its first year of school improvement, while Elkmont, West Limestone and Ardmore high schools are in their second year of improvement.
Tanner High School, which receives Title 1 funds, is in its third year of improvement status.
Schools that do not make AYP for three consecutive years in the same category, or “component,” will be identified for Corrective Action, while schools that do not make AYP for four consecutive years in the same component will be required to develop a restructuring plan.
Schools that do not make AYP for five consecutive years in the same component will be required to implement the restructuring plan.
Sisk said Tanner High School is on some lists of failing schools he’s seen, while it’s not on others. He also questions what guidelines determine a failing school, and said it should not be strictly determined by standardized test scores.
“We do know scores are an important part, and it’s an attempt to quantify an abstract,” he said. “I would prefer to look at graduation rates and how many students are successful in life after school. With those variables, when you look at our students, I would take issue with calling any of our schools failing or low performing.”
In an effort to boost learning at Tanner, the school developed a new instructional program that combines the best practices from high-performing schools. Sisk said he applauded Principal Billy Owens and his staff for working to implement the new guidelines.
“It’s been a very difficult challenge for them and it’s required a tremendous investment of time, but they’ve done an outstanding job,” he said.”
If there are Tanner parents who want to move their child to a private school, however, Sisk said there could be a lack of understanding how the voucher system works. Tuition will be paid up front, and then parents would have to apply for the $3,500 voucher.
The financial affects of the voucher system could also have a crippling financial impact on the county system. Sisk said Limestone County Schools is ranked 108th in state funding out of 136 school systems. He added that administrative costs are among the lowest in the state at just 2 percent.
“For us to pay for vouchers … would be very difficult,” he said. “Our operational budget is trim and well managed. … We don’t have any fluff.”
Despite the GOP support of the voucher bill, Sisk said he believes Williams has the schools’ best interests at heart. Williams expressed disbelief that any Limestone County schools would be considered a failing school, and added that administrators aren’t squarely to blame when a school fails to reach predetermined benchmarks.
“I’m not one to think schools are failing because of teachers. They have a lot of stuff on them that doesn’t involve teaching, and things they’re expected to do,” he said. “If you’ve got a sorry parent who’s not going to teach a child or discipline them, there’s not going to be much way a teacher can do it.”
In an email received by The News Courier, a local teacher — who did not want to be identified — said she felt like she had been “run over again by lawmakers.” She said most teachers would agree there are problems in public schools, but lawmakers do not ask teachers for input on solutions.
The teacher said students today have “baggage” that lawmakers did not face when they themselves were students. She also said there is a “huge (student) absentee problem” teachers must also contend with.
“Every year I can tell within the first few weeks of school who my regular skippers will be. They show up about three days a week, unprepared, behind and only willing to occupy their seat. They are the students who will not succeed no matter what kind of test they take because they do not come to school or care to catch up,” the teacher wrote. “Many come to school zoned out because of drug issues. They certainly won’t succeed. We are making some headway on the drug front, but there is work to be done. I have female students who are pregnant, and male students who are about to become fathers. Who are we kidding? Is learning how to write a research paper high on their list of priorities?”
— The Associated Press contributed to this report.