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Accountability act might cost schools

Published 12:45pm Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Alabama Accountability Act of 2013, a bill that would give tax credits to families of children who opt to leave schools determined to be “failing,” passed through the Alabama Legislature last Thursday.

The bill has yet to be signed into law, however, because of a lawsuit backed by the Alabama Education Association. The lawsuit alleges that lawmakers violated the state Open Meetings Act and legislative rules when the bill was changed in the conference committee.

Tallapoosa County Superintendent Joe Windle said he and his fellow educators were excited about the precursor bill, known as HB-84. However, the bill that is now stuck in the courts is troublesome, Windle said, because of the lack of transparency in the final steps leading up to its passage.

“I think most superintendents were looking for flexibility in curriculum and flexibility with earmarked money, and we thought HB-84 would do that for us,” Windle said.

HB-84 passed the House and moved on to the Senate.

“When HB-84 went to the Senate, we felt like something very close or similar would come back out,” Windle said.

The bill returned to the House, where it went to the conference committee. Windle said after committee, a bill usually goes back out for debate and a vote – this is where he thinks the transparency started to break down.

“This was done in about a three-hour period on a Thursday afternoon – no debate, no discussion,” Windle said. “My concern is not with the outcome as much as it is with the process. I think governance needs to be done in an open, transparent way.”

The speed of which this final bill came to fruition plays into Windle’s second concern.

“Because this was done so quickly, there was no debate on the collateral damage to the legislation,” Windle said. “There was no debate on the issues. We don’t know what the collateral damage could be because it wasn’t discussed and debated openly, and organizations and individuals were not allowed to provide input.”

Windle said he wasn’t as concerned with the tax credit for families with students at failing schools.

“If we don’t have schools in Tallapoosa County that are serving our students like they should be, I think parents should have the right to take them somewhere else,” Windle said. “If we are the best at what we do, they are not going to want to take their child elsewhere.”

The bill also contains sections allowing individuals and businesses to get income tax credits for donating to a scholarship granting organization, Windle said.

“There is a lot of collateral damage possible (with income tax credits),” Windle said. “When you take money from income tax, you have less money going into the Education Trust Fund.”

Windle sees this causing a domino effect that would eventually impact “failing” schools and high-performing schools equally.

“Less money coming into the Education Trust Fund means less money going to the Alabama State Department of Education,” Windle said. “Where does the state pass its losses? They pass them down to local boards of education. It is going to affect all school systems, good or bad.”

More potential for collateral damage exists in the tax credit system for those seeking to flee failing schools, Windle said.

“Let’s say that a child is a special education student with an individual education plan (IEP) that states we have to provide transportation for that child,” Windle said. “We would have to transport that child if that mother says, ‘I want to send my child to Chambers Academy.’ We would have to send a bus to take that child to school and pick him or her back up.”

Windle said he doesn’t believe any Tallapoosa County Schools will be identified as failing for the purposes of the new bill, though three county schools made the list that the Senate used while considering the legislation. Edward Bell School, the Tallapoosa County Alternative School and Councill Middle School were all on this list, which Windle said uses data that is three to four years old.

“No Child Left Behind allowed schools that fit certain criteria to apply for school improvement grants,” Windle said. “All schools that applied for that grant made it on the list of 202 institutions (that were considered failing under old criteria).”

Two of those schools, Edward Bell and the Tallapoosa County Alternative School, no longer exist, and Windle says no school in the system would meet the old criteria for school improvement grants. Under the new bill, criteria for a failing school has not yet been determined, he added.

As of press time, no ruling had been made in the AEA lawsuit that challenges the bill’s legality.

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