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Alabama Accountability Act leaves disadvantaged children trapped in failing schools

The law is touted as a way to provide “school choice,” but in reality it discriminates against many impoverished families that don’t have the means to send children to distant public schools or expensive private academies.

Mariah Russaw worked in Alabama’s cotton fields for nearly 40 years. She desperately wants her grandson, “J.R.,” to have a better life. She knows a quality education is the key.

But J.R. is assigned to a failing school in Barbour County. Under the Alabama Accountability Act, he may transfer to a non-failing public school or a private school. But neither option is realistic.

The closest public school that isn’t failing is almost 20 miles away. That’s nearly 80 miles every school day (20 miles each way, twice daily). Russaw, who has been diagnosed with Bell’s palsy, doesn’t have the physical or financial ability to make the trip. The closest participating private school is approximately 30 miles away.

That means J.R. is trapped in a failing school whose scarce resources will only dwindle as students with the ability to leave the school transfer out. As National School Choice Week is celebrated this week, state lawmakers will tout the Alabama Accountability Act as a shining example of school choice. But for students such as J.R., there is no choice.

Before the Southern Poverty Law Center filed its lawsuit challenging the act last year, we listened to Alabama families. Their stories reflect the real “choices” they face under this act.

They are families forced to choose between using their only car to take their child to a remote school or to get the breadwinner to work on time. They are families that have little use for a scholarship to a distant school they have no way of reaching. They are grandparents unable to afford the private school tuition that they must pay before receiving the act’s $3,500 tax credit.

There’s no shortage of these stories. Students in the 76 schools declared “failing” by the state are overwhelmingly poor. At least 70 percent of the students in failing schools receive free or reduced lunch, placing a non-failing private school out of reach for most.

It is clear that under the Alabama Accountability Act “choice” depends on how much your family makes and where you live. It discriminates against impoverished students in Alabama’s Black Belt and elsewhere. That’s why the SPLC filed a federal lawsuit to stop it.

The failure of this misguided experiment is clear. The state reported in September that only 719 students used the act to leave a “failing” school for a public school in the same district. Fifty-two children used the act’s tax credit to transfer to a private school.

And, only 18 students in the entire state transferred from one school district into another for 2013-14. That’s not enough to fill a single classroom.

Under the Alabama Accountability Act, non-failing schools aren’t even required to admit a child from a failing school. They can, for example, refuse admission because the student’s failing school didn’t teach him to read or perform math adequately.

It’s a perverse interpretation of “school choice.”

But these failures and dead ends are not surprising. This act was concocted behind closed doors by lawmakers unwilling to even consult the state superintendent of education because they feared he would try to stop it. It was slipped into an existing bill and rammed through the Legislature in one day. The average Alabamian had little chance to voice concerns.

Maybe if lawmakers had taken the time to listen, they would have heard about the Black Belt school where students read novels from transparencies on an overhead projector because there aren’t enough copies for the class.

Maybe they would have heard about the science lab where the teacher shows a single microscope to the students because there aren’t enough to go around.

Maybe they would have heard about the class where students can’t take their textbooks home to study because there aren’t enough books for the class. 

Of course, you can only hear these stories if you’re willing to listen.

It’s ironic that in a Legislature filled with lawmakers eager to criticize the federal government as arrogant and out of touch with the average Alabamian, so many failed to recognize the same behavior in the State House.

Most supporters of the act will respond to these stories by saying poor schools must simply pull themselves up by their bootstraps and compete. It’s a pat answer that ignores a dire situation. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “It’s all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.”

But that is what the governor and lawmakers are doing. They are running away from our failing schools. Now they’re advising our children to do the same. The problem is, the children don’t have that luxury.

It is time for the Legislature to fix these schools. Rep. Craig Ford has filed a bill to repeal the Alabama Accountability Act. Repeal would signal that the Legislature is serious about improving education. Supporting the Alabama Department of Education’s Plan 2020 – an education plan drafted by educators – is a good place to start.

It is time to stop talking about choice and start talking about real opportunity. And, that means ensuring a quality education is available in every Alabama community.

M. Geron Gadd is a senior staff attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center.