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Could the Alabama Accountability Act be Birmingham’s savior?

By Scott Buttram

TRUSSVILLE- As the 2014 session of the Alabama Legislature gets under way, I’m still thinking about the 2013 session and the passing of the Alabama Accountability Act, the school choice bill that shocked the Democrats and sent the state media into a frenzy. Monday’s release of the list of 76 failing Alabama schools by the State Department of Education was a reminder of the importance of AAA.

Will 2014 bring some needed changes? Let’s hope so.

The bill was passed coming out of a joint committee in which drastic changes were made to the original bill that offered local school systems more flexibility. The final bill paved the way for students to transfer from failing schools to better schools in or out of the student’s district or to private schools. A new tax credit would assist parents in funding these options.

State Democrats were incensed and felt they had been hoodwinked because they had been.  They were joined by state education leaders, AEA and many in the media for a variety of reasons. Ironically, Democrat strongholds in the state may benefit most from AAA.

There were opinions aplenty and while many were understandable, some have proven to be not so accurate now that the law has been implemented.

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh of Anniston was the mover and shaker behind the bill and called its passage historic. State School Superintendent Tommy Bice worried that money would be lost from an already underfunded state school budget. AEA executive secretary Henry Mabry said hundreds of millions of dollars would be redirected to private schools. All were legitimate comments and concerns. So far, only Marsh appears to have been correct.

A year later, the impact on the education budget has been minimal. But the opportunity is still historic because AAA does indeed provide the first realistic path for students to escape failing schools.

Members of the state media don’t like surprises, especially when it comes to government, and thank goodness for that.

Some claimed the maneuver took place in the cover of darkness, but the bill actually passed at about 6:30 in the evening, voted on by both houses. There were cries that parents couldn’t afford to pay private school tuition for a year until the tax credits kicked in, which is an insult to every parent who has made sacrifices for their children.

State media and Democrats called foul on the Republicans and that is fair. But we’re about 100 years too late to play the righteous indignation card in the game of Alabama politics.

Remember Jim Folsom Jr. and his gaveled voice votes with a smirk on his face? Remember Don Siegelman and the Democrat majority stripping the lieutenant governor’s office of power before the first Republican took the seat in generations?

Alabama politics has always been a game. There’s just a new player at the table now and they’re pretty good at the game.

I’ll not blame anyone for the hyperbole, because we’re all guilty from time to time. I am bothered that so much ink was spent on how the bill was passed instead of what the bill would, or could, do.  

I’ve come to believe that not only is the AAA the first real education legislation with children in mind, but that it may very well save some of the most beautiful parts of our state, including Birmingham.

When the federal courts ordered schools in Alabama to integrate, major cities were faced with white flight to the suburbs. Black Belt counties saw an explosion of private schools, labeled “seg” academies,  that served as a de facto school system for white students.

White flight was followed by black flight of families who sought better schools for their children, and major cities along with many of the rural counties in the Black Belt have suffered serious population losses. But that isn’t the worst of the situation.

It wasn’t just a matter of losing population, but losing the population that most valued education. The problem facing these areas today has nothing to do with white flight or black flight, but it has everything to do with bright flight.

When an educated generation doesn’t return home after advancing its knowledge, home suffers. Birmingham is suffering from a lack of young, growing families and so are wonderful communities all over the state.

With a tax credit in hand and a network of private and parochial educational options, young families can seriously consider theses abandoned treasures of communities again.

In Birmingham, Holy Family Cristo Rey Catholic High School is a shining example of success. As for the “seg” academies in the Black Belt, well, a funny thing happened on the way to George Wallace’s segregation forever. Many, if not most, are now integrated. More diversity is a good thing. A better educational opportunity is a great thing.

Still, changes are needed. Parents in failing school zones who had already made the sacrifice and had their children enrolled in private schools before the bill passed should not be blocked from receiving the tax credits, as they now are. No school system should be able to reject transfers from failing schools for any reason other than overcrowding or discipline issues.

For Alabama to thrive, every area of the state must thrive. We need our great cities like Birmingham and Mobile to flourish and draw the best and the brightest. We need beautiful small towns like Eutaw, Aliceville and Livingston to even be Alabama. But before any of that can happen anywhere, we must educate our children everywhere.

Email Scott Buttram at Scott.Buttram@TrussvilleTribune.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottButtram

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