Alabama Accountability Act: A promise that can’t be kept

Have you ever made a promise you knew you couldn’t keep? I sure did every time mama took a switch to me. “I promise, I promise, I won’t ever do it again,” I hollered as I tried to dance out of her reach.

Unfortunately, when you cast aside all the pleadings that “this is for the children” and when you look at the starkness of the numbers, you see that this is what the Alabama Legislature did when they passed the Alabama Accountability Act.

They made a promise they cannot keep. On page 13, line 13, the new law says:“For tax years beginning on and after January 1, 2013, an Alabama income tax credit is made available to the parent of a student enrolled in or assigned to attend a failing public school to help offset the cost of transferring the student to a non-failing public school or nonpublic school of the parent’s choice.”

My math says there are 89,087 students in “failing schools” in Alabama. This means we have promised to give a tax credit or rebate check of about $3,500 to each of these students. That’s a liability of more than $311 million.

While some guesstimate that only 10 percent of these kids will apply for the money, they may need to take off their rose-colored glasses. For example, a close look at Montgomery County shows what I mean.

There are 21 schools on the “failing” list in Montgomery with 14,511 students. But here’s the rub. There is no way for the existing non-failing public schools to accommodate even a small portion of these kids. However, the law says the rebate “is made available.”

There are seven public high schools in Montgomery. Three, with a total of 4848 students, are failing. Three are magnet schools that have stiff entrance exams. So the failing high school students have only one public school option: Carver High with 1,385 students. They’re going to add nearly 200 classrooms and 200 new teachers to take all these students? Highly unlikely.

What about these kids going to private schools? For one thing, how many poverty stricken families can send their kids to private school, even with a $3,500 rebate since tuition is far more than $3,500? And can private schools in Montgomery absorb 14,511 additional students?

But forget all this guessing on numbers and go back to the law and the promise that each child in a failing school is worth approximately $3,500. Common sense tells me that a single mother with children in a failing school who takes advantage of free lunches for her school age kids (most do) is also going to apply to get $3,500 for each of them. And she’ll find plenty of tax preparers who will be glad to help her – for a cut of the rebate.

But wait, if her kids don’t move to a non-failing school, is this, then, tax fraud? Is it her fault the local school system can’t find space for her children in qualified schools? Is it her fault some lawmakers made a promise they couldn’t keep?

One might even ask: is the mother perpetrating the fraud, or is the state of Alabama?

Larry Lee led the study Lessons Learned from Rural Schools, and is a long-time advocate for public education who frequently writes about education issues.