Our View: Accountability act looks to be much ado about nothing
What difference will the Alabama Accountability Act make? As far as the number of students leaving “failing” schools to enroll somewhere else, the answer is…not much. As far as fears of the state education budget hemorrhaging money going to private schools, that shouldn’t be a problem.

Ever since the state legislature passed the Alabama Accountability Act in late February, it has been criticized, and fears have been raised about what it would bring.

It started out as a school flexibility bill, but in a slick behind-the-scenes maneuver in Montgomery, it was tripled in size and emerged with new provisions. Chief among them are a tax credit for families who send their children to a private school if they are zoned to attend to a “failing” public school. The bill also creates tax credits for businesses or individuals who donate to a nonprofit scholarship-granting organization that provides scholarships for students to attending a nonpublic school or non-failing public school.

It remains to be seen what kind of long-term impact the act may have on students’ performance in public schools.

But the overwhelming majority of those in schools labeled under the law as “failing” are very likely to stay right where they are.

Of the 78 schools labeled as failing, four exclusively serve special needs children. Through a quirk in different parts of the law, they are on the list of “failing schools” compiled by the Alabama State Department of Education.

The 74 remaining schools all have this in common: they serve low-income communities. That is determined by looking at the percentage of students on the free and reduced price lunch program. The most prosperous school on the list has 78 percent of its students in that program, and some have percentages in the 90s.

The only free choice parents have is to transfer their child to a non-failing school in the same school system — if one exists.

If they seek a transfer to a non-failing public school in a different system, they have to make their own transportation arrangements.

But no other school has to accept a student from a “failing” school. As long as their reasons for refusal are not based on race, they can deny the transfer request.

The only other choice for families zoned for a “failing” school would be a transfer to a private school. For most low-income families, that is not an option.

The Accountability Act isn’t a voucher program; it’s a tax credit. A family seeking that credit would be expected to pay tuition at the beginning of the school year, and in the spring apply for the tax credit on their state income tax return.

The credit would amount to 80 percent of the average annual state cost of attendance for a public K-12 student. Right now, that would be about $3,500. But to get the credit, the family would have to pay at least that much in state income tax, and most of the affected families don’t come close to that.

Even if they did, a new determination about the law is that no transfer from a “failing” school to a private school would qualify for the tax credit unless the school participates in the yet-to-be-created scholarship program. To do that, the schools would have to follow state requirements regarding employment, testing and reporting information to the state. While some may agree to those terms, predictions are that many will choose to avoid entanglement with bureaucratic red tape.

Families with students already enrolled in private schools won’t get a break, either, unless they want to attend a “failing” school for at least a semester and then transfer back.

Oh, and did we mention that athletes who transfer to a non-failing public school out of their “failing” school zones lose their eligibility to play AHSAA sports?

None of these issues had any public discussion before their passage. There were no committee hearings, no public comments and no public hint of what was coming. It was just a slick switch on Goat Hill, which the legislative leadership admitted was done so they could get the bill passed.

They succeeded in shining an embarrassing spotlight on 74 schools in the state, but if their goal was to make transferring out of those schools a viable option, it’s just an embarrassing legislative failure.

© 2013