03/30/2014

Stories from the field: Alabama’s school ‘choice’ law offers no real choice for many disadvantaged children

When I accepted a position as a community outreach advocate with the Southern Poverty Law Center, I knew it meant the opportunity to be part of “big things.” Just weeks after I started, standing in a dirt parking lot in a rural Black Belt community, I had absolutely no doubt that I had been right. Advocating for the children our elected officials seem so willing to leave behind was this “big thing.” 

Fellow advocate Cindy Escoto and I had spent the first of many days over the summer speaking with children enrolled in “failing schools” throughout the counties of the state’s Black Belt region. We sat in living rooms, on porches and in backyards, melting in the Alabama humidity, and listened. Kids described their experiences in their schools, and parents shared stories of the hardship and resilience that has marked their lives in these close-knit, impoverished communities. 

For someone who graduated from the best public high school my state had to offer, their stories were a stark reminder of the alarming inequities in educational opportunities that act to reinforce social and economic inequality. I learned from a 7th-grader that in his school they read novels from overhead projector transparencies because the school does not have enough books. Parents told us that they struggle to afford school uniforms, to check their children’s homework assignments because they lack Internet access, or to help when their child is stuck on a problem because their own educational opportunities had been so limited.   

The state legislature passed a “school choice” bill last year, offering tax credits to families that are able to transfer their children from “failing schools” to higher-performing public schools or private ones. But with each conversation it became clearer that this law, the Alabama Accountability Act, offers no meaningful choice to these families. There is simply nowhere their children can feasibly go.

Standing in that dusty parking lot, I wished the legislators who passed this law could sit on these porches, look these kids in the eye and explain why funding a policy that has enabled fewer than 800 children to transfer out of failing schools is more important than providing the resources needed to help their schools succeed, starting with enough books.  I wondered how they would stare endemic poverty in the face and justify the funneling of money away from public education into the hands of corporations and wealthy individuals.

What would they say to the paralyzed mother we met who wants nothing more than for her child, who aspires to be a nurse, to get a good education but cannot possibly get her to the nearest non-failing public school some 60 miles away? How would they tell a grandmother we spoke with that she could choose to pay private school tuition for her grandsons, up front, and then wait for a tax credit – when repairing the leaky roof on her mobile home is her priority but a stretch financially? Maybe then they would see that “choice” is entirely dependent on circumstances. 

Through our outreach, we found brave families willing to bring a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the Alabama Accountability Act. The parents and guardians of our plaintiffs know that for their children, born into racially and economically marginalized communities, public education provides a ladder to reach their dreams. I am honored to accompany them through the legal process. We must not let their futures become the collateral damage of this misguided policy. They, too, deserve “big things.” 

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Kristen Anderson is a community outreach advocate for the SPLC.