Choice, Standards Ignite Debate in Alabama

By Andrew Ujifusa — March 12, 2013 6 min read
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Debate over a pair of education issues in Alabama—the creation of a new program of school choice and implementation of the Common Core State Standards—has featured politically outgunned Democrats, as well as the state schools superintendent and local school boards, fighting Republicans in the courts and the Statehouse.

The tax-credit-based choice program passed by lawmakers at the end of last month targets students at low-performing schools. It drew a storm of protest from Democrats and others who say the Republicans in control of the legislature sneaked the bill through and violated rules to get it passed. Critics call the program vouchers in disguise.

(As of last week, the state teachers’ union had won a restraining order in court temporarily blocking Gov. Robert Bentley, a Republican, from signing the bill into law.)

At the same time, bills under consideration in both the House and the Senate would bar the state from implementing the common core, which was adopted by Alabama, 44 other states, and the District of Columbia in both English/language arts and mathematics. In January, Alabama left the two federally funded consortia that are designing assessments based on the standards.

If the tax-credit legislation is eventually signed, Alabama will become the 12th state to adopt such a program.

Under the proposed law, the scholarships would be available to any student assigned to a “failing school,” a term that includes any school receiving a D or F grade from the state education department; a school designated as such in an application for a federal School Improvement Grant; or one with scores in the lowest 10 percent on the state’s standardized tests.

Parents could receive a tax credit equal to 80 percent of the state’s per-pupil cost for a public school student, the equivalent of about $3,550, or the actual cost of attending either a private or nonfailing public school, whichever would be less. Tax credits distributed through personal and corporate donations to scholarship-granting groups would also be allowed, with a $25 million annual cap on the credits.

Governor’s Support

In a Feb. 28 statement that he would sign the bill, Gov. Bentley said, “Families will have new options if their children are stuck in failing schools.”

Kay Day, an Alabama tea party member, demonstrates in front of the statehouse in Montgomery, protesting the state's participation in the Common Core State Standards in math and literacy.

Compared with other states’ tax-credit programs, the law would be relatively strict in its reporting requirements, said Adam Emerson, the director of the parental-choice program at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington think tank that supports school choice. For example, schools receiving tax-credit funds would have to administer either the state assessment or norm-referenced tests and report the results for students receiving scholarships, he said.

Oklahoma is the only state that awards vouchers specifically based on attendance at low-performing schools, according to the Alliance for School Choice, a Washington group that supports vouchers and tax-credit scholarships.

But Alabama Democrats, school boards, and others claimed the proposal was passed only through closed-door politics.

The original bill dealt only with a plan to allow Alabama school districts flexibility, financial and otherwise, on meeting state education department rules. It was only after a conference committee meeting Feb. 28 that the school choice plan became a part of the measure.

Outraged Democrats protested that GOP legislators had sneaked the proposal through to avoid debate and review, allegations denied by Republicans.

Alabama schools chief Tommy Bice, who was appointed by the state school board in 2011, indicated to lawmakers that he supported the initial plan for district flexibility, but not the bill’s final version. An analysis released last week by the state education department said that, regarding the definition of failing schools, “there are four fundamentally different criteria listed in the bill, none of which are part of the state board of education’s new accountability plan” under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

The Alabama Association of School Boards has also asked Mr. Bentley not to sign the bill because of its potential costs and “cumbersome” new rules it would place on districts.

‘An Abomination’

After the bill passed, the AEA filed a lawsuit March 4 alleging that GOP lawmakers had violated the state’s Open Meetings Act by holding discussions about the creation of the choice program in secret, as well as the legislature’s rule about when new appropriations measures can be introduced.

“This legislation is an abomination against public education,” said Henry Mabry, the executive secretary of the AEA, an affiliate of the National Education Association. The language of the bill, Mr. Mabry argued, could allow parents of children already enrolled in private schools to receive tax credits. He called it “multiple times worse” than unsuccessful legislation last year that sought to allow charter schools in Alabama.

On March 6, Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Charles Price blocked the bill from reaching Gov. Bentley’s desk until a March 15 hearing. Ultimately, the 100,000-member AEA wants the bill invalidated or withdrawn. The Republican legislators behind the tax-credit plan said they would appeal to the Alabama Supreme Court, the Associated Press reported.

Mr. Emerson of the Fordham Institute suggested that the 2012 defeat of charters, after a tough political battle, may have influenced GOP legislators’ decision not to advertise and hold lengthy discussions about the tax-credit program, a supposition that Mr. Mabry shared. Among states offering vouchers, tax-credit scholarships, or both, Alabama is the only one not to allow charter schools.

Mr. Mabry declined to say if the AEA would challenge the law based on the state’s so-called Blaine Amendment, a provision in several state constitutions that prohibits public funds from going to “sectarian” schools. But he did stress that civil rights issues were at stake.

Common-Core Fears

Still awaiting final action are House and Senate bills requiring Alabama to drop the common core.

Momentum appears to be with the foes of the new standards, which Alabama adopted in 2010. Last month, the Alabama Republican Party approved a resolution saying the state should drop the standards.

In addition to contending that the standards—developed through a project led by state governors’ and state schools chiefs’ groups—were an improper federal intrusion into K-12 policy, the resolution says: “Common core invades students’ privacy by requiring the collection of personal, nonacademic information, which will be shared with the federal government and private organizations without parents’ permission.”

The resolution also claims that the student data would be tracked in a national database.

But Mr. Bice, state and district school board representatives, and teachers testified against both bills in a joint hearing late last month.

Mr. Bice said that contrary to the fears about student privacy expressed in the GOP resolution, the state shares with Washington only the student data required under the No Child Left Behind Act and the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, and that the state does not give any individualized student data to the federal government.

“Education and the state’s economy will suffer if these standards are repealed,” Joseph B. Morton, a former state superintendent and the chairman emeritus of the Business Council of Alabama, told lawmakers.

A version of this article appeared in the March 13, 2013 edition of Education Week as Choice, Standards Stir Alabama Heat


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