Seven county schools listed as potentially “failing”

Local education administrators are waiting with bated breath to see what effect House Bill 84 will have on schools rural areas such as Marengo County.

The controversial legislation calls for a tax credit of $3,553 for each child who lives in the district of what is deemed a failing school. The tax voucher is designed to enable parents to remove their children from failing schools and enroll them in a non-failing public school or a private school.

The exact dollar amount is 80 percent of what the state figures to be the average cost of educating a single child in Alabama, a figure that comes to $4,442.

While the bill has yet to be signed into law, it has many of those in the education community concerned over its potential impact.

“My concerns are what negative financial impact, if any, it’s going to have and what impact it is going to have on us,” Demopolis City Schools Superintendent Dr. Al Griffin said. “I hope there aren’t any unfunded mandates. I just hope this is not one of those bills where we don’t look up a year or two later and think that we did not weigh the possible outcomes of it.”

Under the legislation, a failing school would be defined as one that either ranked in the bottom 10 percent of statewide reading and math assessment scores, scored three consecutive D’s or one F on a new Florida-style school report card system in the process of being implemented, was labeled as “persistently low-performing” on the state’s School Improvement Grant application or was declared as failed by the state superintendent of education.

While the state Department of Education has yet to determine exactly how many schools would qualify as failing by those guidelines, Senate Republicans circulated a list of 202 schools they estimated would currently fit into that category based on their understanding of state data.

Schools on the Republicans’ list of potentially failing institutions include A.L. Johnson High School, John Essex High School, Marengo High School, Sweet Water High School, Linden High School, Linden Elementary School and George P. Austin Junior High School.

That list encompasses every public school in Marengo County outside of the Demopolis City Schools system.

Moreover, the list also includes nearby schools such as Greene County High School, Greensboro High School, Greensboro Middle School and Sumter County institutions Kinterbish Junior High, Livingston Junior High, York West End Junior High and Sumter Central High School.

Should that list prove accurate, parents who are zoned for those districts would receive the outlined financial incentives for sending their students to non-failing public schools such as Demopolis or Thomasville or to private schools like Marengo Academy, Sumter Academy or Southern Academy.

While there is no way to surmise exactly how many students would move into the DCS system given such incentives, Griffin indicated that admission policy as currently constituted is based upon available space.

“We keep an open door policy as long as space is available,” Griffin said.

In addition to the effect that the bill could have in terms of shifting student populations, it contains within it potentially devastating hits to the Education Trust Fund as its language also calls for the creation of a $25 million scholarship fund that would be used to offset the cost of private school education should institutions exceed $3,500 in tuition costs.

Those scholarships would be made available to families with incomes up to $64,000 per year.

State Superintendent of Education Dr. Tommy Bice was among those taken aback by the language of the legislation, which shifted suddenly from an eight-page flexibility bill to a 27-page document promising to drastically shift education in Alabama.

“NONE of the added language to the Flex Bill has been vetted with us at the State Department/State Board of Education,” Bice said in a statement distributed to lawmakers as he withdrew his support from the bill. “There are SIGNIFICANT negative financial implications for all of Alabama’s public schools. THIS IS NO LONGER THE BILL I GAVE MY SUPPORT TO!”

“The original bill was just to give you flexibility from certain mandates. For example, if you were opening a welding program and you had a hard time finding a teacher with a technical education degree, those things would be waived. It would give you that flexibility to get around a certification issue. There were two amendments to the bill to protect teacher tenure and there was an amendment to state that charter schools were not an option,” Griffin said of the bill’s original terminology.

Following the sudden and clandestine shift in the bill’s constitution, education officials statewide withdrew their support and have implored Gov. Robert Bentley not to sign it into law.

“If there is any reason that the State superintendent, the Alabama Education Association and the school board association are all three adamant to stop this and Dr. Bice writes a memo in all caps, I believe it would do (Bentley) some good to sit down and lend them his ear for a few minutes to hear concerns,” Griffin said.

Bentley, who is expected to sign the bill into law today, said he believes competition between public and private schools could prove to be a good thing.

“If it takes that to turn around failing schools, I’m willing to do it,” he said. “Obviously things are not working right now in some of these school systems across this state. And there seems to be no impetus to turn these schools around.”