Amy H. Marlowe
AEA Executive Director
I hope that you had a restful and reinvigorating holiday break. By the time this issue of the Journal reaches you, we will be nearing the start of the 2024 Regular Session of the Alabama Legislature. It promises to be as stressful and eventful as the past few sessions, as we expect forces from outside Alabama to make a major push to divert funds from our local schools to private hands.
As we prepare for the struggle ahead, we must be mindful of the language that the opponents of public education will use. It is a time-honored tradition in marketing and politics to use innocuous-sounding euphemisms to disguise bad things. It is a “courtesy call” when a telemarketer interrupts your dinner. Innocent civilians killed in war are “collateral damage.” The euphemism/marketing slogan/flat-out lie you will hear many times in the coming weeks, and need to be ready to counter immediately, is “school choice.”
If you listen to the claims of our detractors, you’d never realize that we already have school choice in Alabama. In fact, Alabama is already ranked between 15th and 18th in all national polls ranking the amount of school choice available to American students. Just imagine if Alabama was ranked 15th or 18th in educator pay!
Alabama parents have a myriad of options that are not available to other Americans when it comes to how they choose to educate their children. So, why are we having this debate? The answer is simple once you see beyond the smokescreen of the “school choice” language. This struggle is about nothing more than the age-old fight over vouchers. Once again, the vultures are circling to redirect public tax dollars to private pockets and private bank accounts. Let’s call it what it is: SCHOOL CHOICE = VOUCHERS!
These people want to take money from your already underfunded local schools and give it to private schools for, in the overwhelming majority of cases, children already attending those private schools. When Arkansas implemented its new voucher program this past year, 95% of the students who received the vouchers were already in private schools. A similar story played out in Florida.
In addition to a lack of financial accountability in these programs, there is usually a total lack of educational accountability. There are also no requirements to meet the rigid standards of the Alabama Literacy Act or the Alabama Numeracy Act. Simply put, these private schools and homeschool parents will get taxpayer funds intended to educate Alabama children with absolutely no strings attached.
What the voucher crowd conveniently ignores is that we have already found a middle ground in Alabama. Under the Alabama Accountability Act, taxpayers can decide if they want to fund private school opportunities for students. There is some accountability in that law to ensure funds are used properly and are directed to students in actual need, not just parents looking for a handout to finance their lifestyle.
This session will give legislators a chance to prove AEA wrong. AEA said when the Alabama Accountability Act passed that it was just a gateway to vouchers without oversight. If the Legislature holds the line and rejects zero-accountability private school welfare, it will mark a major milestone for community schools in Alabama.
The stakes could not be higher when it comes to defeating vouchers/school choice. Funding drained from our local schools means fewer math and reading coaches, cuts to extracurricular activities, loss of STEM programs, and, in extreme cases, reductions in force. Every dollar taken from the Education Trust Fund (ETF) for private schools is a dollar that could finance cost-of-living adjustments for Alabama educators to help you keep up with inflation. It also means there will be zero money available to recognize our education retirees - whom AEA has made its highest priority for the upcoming session because they are so greatly deserving.
Many of you have participated in our Legislative Contact Team (LCT) dinners and roundtables. I hope you continue making constant contact with your legislators. If you didn’t have the opportunity, I hope that you will use the contact information for your legislators located on page seven of this month's issue of the Alabama School Journal to reach out to them when the time comes. It is going to take a concerted effort by all of us who care about the future of public education in Alabama to fight off an onslaught of out-of-state money to siphon taxpayer funds into private hands.
Take the opportunity today to sign up for text alerts from AEA and follow us on our social media channels. Information on how to do that is available in the Journal and on myaea.org. That way, you will have the most up-to-the-minute information on what’s happening on Goat Hill. Also, to the extent you can, try to keep a personal leave day available in case we have to call for a day of action at the State House, as we successfully did last session when fighting for a $15 per hour minimum salary for our ESPs. We will also have a thorough legislative analysis in every issue of the Journal. There are many dangers, toils, and snares ahead, but I’m confident, with all of us working together, AEA will carry through for Alabama schools – we have no choice but to prevail!