Real story behind education act

Published 11:01 am Monday, March 18, 2013

By Cam Ward

Last weekend, many of us in this community most likely saw or heard what could be classified as one of the most misleading, propaganda-filled political attacks we’ve seen in quite some time.

The attacks were launched by Montgomery union bosses and special interest groups that are staunchly opposed to a bill the conservative Heritage Foundation called a “historic school choice plan” and what classified as “the most radical education reform in decades.”

House Bill 84, the Alabama Accountability Act, creates a school choice program in Alabama that makes it easier for parents of children in failing schools to send their children to a non-failing public or private school – putting decisions about what is best for children in the hands of parents, not government bureaucrats or union bosses.

Specifically, the bill has three components:

•It allows schools and school districts to enter into flexibility contracts with the state Board of Education, giving local school systems the necessary tools to meet their local needs, in exchange for increased accountability and improved learning results.

•It gives families with students in a failing school the opportunity to receive an income tax credit to offset the cost of transferring the student to a non-failing public school or private school.

•And it provides tax credits to individuals or businesses that donate to a nonprofit scholarship program so low-income families can send their children to a non-failing school.

This legislation has been classified by opponents as an “attack” on public education.

The truth is the only things “under attack” are perpetually failing schools. The bill clearly states that the tax credit only applies to those “enrolled in or assigned to attend a failing public K-12 school in the state.” This is a strong motivator for failing schools to improve. Coupled with legislation we’ve passed to authorize the state to take over and improve failing schools for poor academic standards, this package will greatly improve public education in Alabama for all children, no matter their zip code.

During my time in the Alabama Legislature, I have been staunchly pro-public education and pro-teacher, voting to send more money to classrooms and for every teacher pay raise. The only things I’m against are failing schools. We owe it to these children and parents stuck in these schools to give them options.

Opponents have also said this will result in a loss of education funding.

The truth is, based on estimates we’ve seen so far, the cost of this legislation will be roughly 1 percent of the state’s education budget. For parents and children trapped in failing schools, we simply can’t afford to keep doing nothing. If parents choose to enroll their child in a non-failing school, they will receive a tax credit of roughly $3,500, which is equal to 80 percent of the per pupil expenditure. The other 20 percent continues to fund public schools.

The legislation also clearly states that no tax dollars earmarked for education will be diverted to non-education purposes. Instead, parents will have the choice for a portion of the education funding to follow the child to a non-failing school.

Alabama joins 16 other states—including our Southeastern neighbors Georgia, Florida, Mississippi and Louisiana—in implementing some form of school choice legislation. If school choice is working for students in these states, and studies show that it is, why can’t it work for students in Alabama?

The bottom line is Alabama has ranked among the bottom of education rankings nationally for far too long. Gov. Robert Bentley and the Legislature passed this bill to specifically target failing schools, encourage them to improve, and give parents and children trapped in failing schools more choices to pursue a quality education.

Cam Ward is the state senator representing Chilton County.