Alabama's education reforms are a welcome reform to past failures

SONY DSCAlabama Republicans have found a welcome distraction from their immigration witch hunts and casino raids in the new school accountability law that Gov. Robert Bentley signed last week. The significance of the law is revealed by the intensity of the state teachers’ union’s opposition to it, which is continuing its long tradition of obstructing meaningful education reform.

Alabama Education Association executive secretary Henry Marbry said the law, which would give parents in failing school districts a tax credit to send their children to private schools, as Marbry does, would cause “irreparable harm” to the state’s school systems.

Unfortunately, our school systems have already been irreparably harmed by decades of politically-driven mismanagement inspired by the AEA. The union is responsible for the tenure laws preventing low-performing schools from firing bad teachers, certification requirements preventing schools from hiring good teachers with nontraditional backgrounds, and Alabama’s refusal to authorize charter schools.

After fighting with all the political weight of its 100,000-plus members to prevent any reforms that would give poorly performing schools a chance to turn themselves around, the AEA is outraged that state lawmakers are giving parents another choice.

(See also "Alabama Supreme Court overturns judge’s injunction of school flexibility bill")

Currently, everyone pays taxes to support public education, and if parents can afford private school tuition on top of their tax bill, they can send their children to a private school. Under the new law, parents in failing school districts will receive a rebate of around $4,000 from their income taxes to apply toward private school tuition if they choose.

The credit is refundable, so families owing less than $4,000 in taxes will receive a rebate to make up the difference. Additionally, the law creates generous tax deductions for those who donate to a scholarship fund for poor students to help bridge the gap between the value of the tax credit and private school tuition.

In rural areas of the state, though, most private schools already charge less than $4,000 a year in tuition, meaning the tax credit alone may be enough for families in some of the poorest and worst school systems to find another choice for their children. The impact of the credit could be tremendous, as lower-income families would finally have the means to send their children to the majority-white private schools that sprang up after integration. If the racial and socioeconomic divisions between public and private schools begin to disappear, then schools will be forced to distinguish themselves by performance instead of demographics.

The AEA and Alabama Democrats allege instead that the tax credits will deprive public schools of revenue, even though the value of the credits is only 80 percent of average public school spending per-student. For every student who leaves a public school because of the tax credits, the public school system will still keep 20 percent of the money needed to educate that student.

This targeted program is not going to harm education, but it is going to harm the AEA’s monopoly over Alabama’s parents.

It is true that even with scholarships and credits, some private schools may still be unaffordable for some families. That is not an argument for nixing the tax credits; however, it is an argument for increasing them and expanding the program in the future.

These education reforms are a welcome change for the state, regardless of whether or not the AEA likes them.

Tray Smith is a junior majoring in journalism and political science. His column runs weekly on Mondays.

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