Archived Story

New law receives mixed reviews

Published 10:46am Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Alabama Accountability Act of 2013, signed into law Thursday, is either a much-needed measure or a potential unmitigated disaster, depending on whom you ask.

“There’s so much misinformation going around,” said John Prophitt, past chairman of the Tallapoosa County Republican Party.

The bill began in the Alabama House of Representatives as a move toward more flexibility for schools but, after a number of amendments in the Senate, came to include a section that has many concerned about the long-term impact on the Alabama education system.

“People still don’t fully understand the ramifications,” said T.C. Coley, who works for the Alabama Education Association. “It could eventually impact the majority of the schools in one form or fashion.”

The section of the 27-page act that has caused the most questions is the stipulation that would “provide an income tax credit to any parent who transfers a student enrolled in or assigned to attend a failing public K-12 school to a nonfailing public school or nonpublic school.”

“If you have a school that’s chronically failing … in the past, there hasn’t been any negatives,” Prophitt said. “We finally have some accountability for failing schools. I don’t think anyone wants to have a school failing chronically without having some kind of action being taken.”

The measure purportedly ensures the ability of all Alabama schoolchildren to obtain a first-rate education, but concerns have surfaced about what constitutes a failing school and how the new act could affect public school funding.

“My major concern with the bill is the effect it can or might have on the Education Trust Fund,” said Tallapoosa County Board of Education Superintendent Joe Windle. “Since we depend on income and sales tax for 85 percent of our money, when you start paying less income tax, that means less money coming into the Education Trust Fund.”

According to the Alabama Accountability Act of 2013, parents who apply for the tax credit could receive an amount “equal to 80 percent of the average annual state cost of attendance for a public K-12 student during the applicable tax year.”

That credit would mean less money going into the Education Trust Fund – meaning, Windle said, less money for all schools, regardless of where they stand in terms of failing or nonfailing status.

“It was an extremely risky move financially not knowing what the net results of this type of legislation are,” Coley said. “The devil is in the details on this. You have to dig down into the details.”

Coley said another concern is the potential for students who are already in private schools – and always have been – in counties where the designated public school is deemed to be failing to also obtain the tax credit.

“(The tax credit) is not just for the kids who are leaving the failing schools – it’s for people who live in the counties or in the school districts of the failing schools who have opted to put their kids in private schools,” Coley said.

The text of the act reads, “An Alabama income tax credit is made available to the parent of a student enrolled in or assigned to attend a failing school;” it’s the “assigned to” criteria that Coley said causes an issue.

That’s just one example of what Coley said the AEA considers flaws in the language of the act – intentional or not. Another is the procedure and steps required for a parent to transfer their student from a failing school – particularly if the parent chooses a private school instead.

“If I don’t have the extra money per month to send my child to a private school, I don’t have time to wait for a tax credit to be able to send my child to the private school,” Coley said. “You have to spend the money and then you get credit for the expenditure. If I don’t have the money up front, I’m never going to get around to the point at which I can make the expenditure.”

But perhaps the crux of the issue is the criteria for establishing a list of failing schools.

“That failing school section – the State Department of Education has not come out with a list of schools that fit that definition yet,” Prophitt said. “You can’t use that list that they were circulating around because that may or may not be the official list.”

An example list of schools that might meet the criteria made its rounds before the Accountability Act was signed into law. In its definition of terms, the act lays out the criteria for a failing school, including any one of the following:

labeled as persistently low-performing by the State Department of Education in the then most recent United State Department of Education School Improvement Grant application listed in the lowest 10  percent of public K-12 schools on the state standardized assessment in reading and math earned  a grade of F or three consecutive grades of D pursuant to Section 16-6C-2 of the Code of Alabama 1975 designated a failing school by the State Superintendent of Education.

“I’m not concerned about losing students – I think students that are in failing students ought to have an option to go to another school, but they already did with School Choice as part of the No Child Left Behind act,” Windle said.

But Coley said some aspects of these criteria are troubling – like being in the lowest 10 percent.

“You’ll always have 10 percent failing,” Coley said. “Say some of those underperforming systems collapsed and went away for good. Some of the systems that were doing better are now going to be in that 10 percent.”

Coley also said he took issue with the automatic failing classification of schools that were labeled low-performing according to the School Improvement Grant application – an application that is four to five years old.

It is this criteria that would place Councill Middle School on the failing schools list.

“Because of this arbitrary language in the law, Councill is now lumped in with all the other schools that may actually not be doing so well,” Coley said.

Coley and Windle said it will take a year or two to begin to see the long term impact of the bill on education funding.

“I don’t think anybody can tell you what the economic impact will be,” Windle said. “I just don’t want public education to suffer because of cutting income coming into the education system … I have been assured by Representative Mark Tuggle and Senator Tom Whatley that if there is an impact on the Education Trust Fund that they will propose some legislative changes to cap the tax credit. I’m satisfied with that.”

Prophitt, too, said the next step is to wait for an official list of “failing” schools as well as wait for clarification on some aspects of administering the act.

“I believe in public education – no doubt about that, – but I also believe public education has to have some accountability,” Prophitt said. “Just give this a little time and let the rules come out. Then you’ll know.”