Fierce School Voucher Battle Leaves Alabama School System in Limbo

A nasty political fight brews over giving tax credits to students trying to escape failing schools.

Alabama is in a fierce fight over school vouchers. These students are at A.H. Parker High School in Birmingam. (Photo: Getty Images)

Suzi Parker is a regular contributor to TakePart. Her work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

Alabama has become ground zero in a heated political battle over failing schools.

The debate centers on the Alabama state legislature, where last week a bill was passed regarding failing schools. The bill would give parents of students zoned for “failing” schools an income tax credit to help pay for tuition at a private school or other public school.

“Families will have new options if their children are stuck in failing schools,” Bentley said in a Feb. 28 statement announcing his intention to sign the legislation. “All children, regardless of their family’s income or where they live, will have the opportunity to receive a quality education.”

Opponents, including the Alabama Education Association (AEA), say the bill didn’t start out as a voucher bill and have sued to stop Republican Governor Robert Bentley from signing the bill. They argue that the GOP state house majority bypassed certain rules in a committee, which resulted in the bill coming out of committee with the tax credit amendment. As opponents shouted their objections in the state house chamber, the Republican state house supermajority passed the bill.

An Alabama circuit judge this week blocked Bentley from signing the legislation until a mid-March hearing.

The drama in Alabama is indicative of what happens when partisan politics takes over an education issue.

“The battle over vouchers is both political and educational,” Marc F. Bernstein, an adjunct faculty member at the Fordham University Graduate School of Education, told TakePart. “It’s political because it is a matter of philosophy for conservatives, namely to look to the private sector for solutions; in this case private schools. And it is educational because too many public schools are not being successful on behalf of too many students.”

Initially, the Alabama bill had bipartisan and AEA support. The gist of the original bill would have allowed city and county school boards more leeway in complying with state education laws. The only major conflict was in regards to teacher tenure laws. Then, as is common in state legislatures, the House and Senate passed different versions. The bill went back to a GOP-majority committee and there, tax credits to escape failing schools were added.

Democrats are crying bait-and-switch. But it’s left the Alabama education system, often ranked one of the lowest in the country, in limbo.

The legislators released a list that showed 202 schools graded as failing in Alabama. Critics dispute the list, saying an earlier version revealed only about 70. The state Department of Education has not said when it will release a new list, adding further to the drama.

Like all critics of vouchers, Gerald Waldrop, a former Democratic legislator and former AEA State President, wrote in an opinion piece in The Birmingham News that the legislation erodes and weakens the state’s public education system.

“From the mouths of those responsible for passage, their plan was to let ‘students flee failing schools,’ ” he wrote. “In reality, where intended or not, their plan will push other schools into the failing category as the loonies ‘throw out the baby with the wash water.’ ”

Bernstein agrees. He said vouchers must be “the absolute last resort because they deny needed money to the public schools.”

But he added, “Having said that, unless teacher unions embrace accountability measures and less job protection, they leave elected officials little recourse but to take drastic steps such as vouchers.”

More stories on school vouchers from TakePart:

School Vouchers: The Debate Heats Up Across the U.S.

The Dark Side of School Reform

Louisiana Divided: Jindal’s Voucher Law Dragged Into Court

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