No choice for Alabama students

It’s not often a piece of legislation is challenged in court before it becomes law. But since Alabama teacher unions and school boards are so intent on quashing any alternative to the traditional school district, they have marshaled every resource to defeat what should be the state’s first private school choice plan.

When Republicans passed a tuition tax credit late last week, the Alabama Education Association cried foul and took the GOP to court, claiming that legislative leaders violated the state’s Open Meetings Act by privately discussing the measure and tacking it on at the last minute to an entirely different education bill. This afternoon, a state judge gave the union a temporary victory and forbade the governor from signing the bill until next week when a hearing determines what will happen next.

Not to be sidelined, the Alabama Association of Schools Boards and the School Superintendents of Alabama have sent Governor Robert Bentley a joint letter urging him to reject the measure, using faulty assumptions to claim that such a law would reduce education funding by tens of millions of dollars.

The harm done to these parties is real only if one assumes that every education dollar is theirs to begin with. And to the state’s public education establishment, that has been the assumption. Whether lawmakers or school-choice advocates are proposing tax credit scholarships or charter schools, they can expect a fight—not just from the unions and the school boards, but from the Alabama Department of Education, as well. And all of them will be clubbing reformers with the same stick.

In this, the Heart of Dixie is nearly unique as it employs rhetoric and legislative maneuvers that were more common in policy fights some twenty years ago. School boards throughout the state last year threatened they would have to fire teachers and support staff if the legislature passed a charter school bill (Alabama is among just eight states today without a charter law). And the bill itself was so neutered by the time the legislative session ended in May that its Republican champions conceded that it wasn’t worth passing.

So how should one suppose a voucher bill would fare? Legislative leaders knew the answer when they decided last week to take a popular piece of legislation that would have freed school districts from some bureaucratic mandates and appended the tax-credit plan to it. It would have allowed families zoned to a low-performing school the option of attending a better public school or a tax credit to help cover private school tuition. The amount of the credit would be worth up to 80 percent of what the state spends per student in Alabama (an amount that last year would have been worth about $3,500). The benefit would be refundable for low-income households, meaning the state would bankroll the credit if it exceeded a family’s tax liability. And businesses could also contribute to a scholarship group and receive a tax credit for their largesse.

To be sure, such a sweeping measure deserved debate, but its champions allowed no time before a vote and it passed along party lines. Four Republican lawmakers in particular caucused on the bill before they brought it back to other members, an act that ultimately led to the union’s lawsuit and complaints that the bill was borne in secrecy.

Theoretically, debate could have made a good bill better. While the plan would have benefited students in the state’s lowest-performing schools, it did little to help the poorest students first. And the credit could have been applied to students already in private schools but who were “zoned” to a failing school. Such a provision weakens the argument that a tax credit such as this provides a savings to taxpayers.

But let’s not fool ourselves. The policy arena would have been poisoned, as it’s becoming now, and no such constructive debate would have been likely. Even if the governor caneventually sign the bill, families hoping for more school options can expect an unstable environment for years to come.

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