Civilization is a race between education and catastrophe.
— H.G. Wells
Two weeks after its speedy approval by the Republican supermajority in the Alabama Legislature, the Alabama Accountability Act continues to dominate political discourse — such as it is — in Montgomery and around the state. And rightly so.
The bill started out in the legislative session as an apparently well-intentioned effort to provide local school districts with greater flexibility and control over their operations. It garnered enthusiastic backing from educators and administrators across Alabama, and prompted a joint statement of support from state schools Superintendent Tommy Bice, the Alabama Association of School Boards, the A+ Education Partnership, the Alabama Association of School Business Officials, the Business Council of Alabama and the Council for Leaders in Alabama Schools.
Naturally, then, the bill did not pass in its original form. Instead, Senate Republicans, led by President pro tem Del Marsh, took the nine-page bill that had passed the Alabama House with bipartisan support, and tacked on 18 additional pages that turned the flexibility measure into a “school choice” act which creates tax credits for parents who move their children from “failing” public schools to private schools or “non-failing” public ones. The maneuver sparked a protracted shouting match in the Senate chamber, but the bill quickly passed.
Just as quickly, the House approved the revised measure, which Governor Robert Bentley immediately promised to sign into law. That hasn’t happened yet, thanks to a temporary restraining order issued by Montgomery County Circuit Judge Charles Price — a Democrat — in response to a lawsuit filed by the Alabama Education Association (AEA). Marsh, House Speaker Mike Hubbard and other GOP lawmakers asked the all-Republican Alabama Supreme Court to lift the stay, but the state’s highest court has not yet ruled, perhaps awaiting the outcome of a hearing in Price’s court scheduled for Friday, March 15.
Meanwhile, it has come to light that almost no one on the Republican side actually knew the contents of the bill they voted for, including the fact that it fails to provide a clear definition of a “failing” school. What’s more, the burdens of implementing the law — transporting students to their newly chosen schools, for example — would fall on local school districts, most of which already are cash-strapped.
The merits of the Alabama Accountability Act may be open to continuing debate. In my view, and that of many educators, it is a terrible and purposefully misguided use of public funds, coming at the expense of the schools and students most in need of precious resources. One irony of the legislation — beyond the fact that Marsh has claimed that it is intended to help poor minority students attend better schools — is that it extends the tax credit to people whose children already are in private schools if the public school in their zoning district is categorized as “failing.”* A wealthy, Democratic-leaning friend of mine who fits this criteria summed up the injustice of this provision in a conversation with me a few days ago, when he allowed, with a rueful smirk, “Yeah, I’m looking forward to my tax break.”
Barring the Accountability Act being struck down by judicial action or some retroactive “fix” by the Legislature — one lawmaker told me last week that many Republicans are, privately, “genuinely ashamed” at both the shoddy nature of the bill and the manner in which it was railroaded through, but “I don’t think they have the gumption to do anything about it” — only time will tell whether what GOP leaders and Governor Bentley have hailed publicly as a “revolutionary” and “historic” step forward for education in Alabama will wreak anything other than chaos.
Regardless, the overarching issue here is the complete lack of transparency and, well, accountability displayed by the Republican leadership. No notice was given to the public. There was no debate in the Legislature. Not a single top Alabama education official was consulted on the bill’s contents or possible effects. No attention was given to the qualitative aspects of the measure. It was, purely and simply, a flexing of GOP muscle, a feckless demonstration of the fact that if Republicans want to pass a law making it mandatory that all Alabamians wear funny hats and their pants inside-out on Thursdays, they can do so.
The ramrodding of the Accountability Act also was the latest in an ongoing series of punitive actions by the GOP supermajority against the rotting remnants of the Democratic power structure — most notably, the AEA — that ruled the Legislature for decades. Some — including, on most days, yours truly — might argue that this is nothing more than political karma, the AEA and its legislative minions reaping the whirlwind sewn by their own iron-fisted “leadership” of our state. That is correct, as far as it goes, but that doesn’t make it right.
In light of the highly partisan and stringently polarized political climate that prevails in Alabama and across the country, it should not be surprising that politicians and political parties behave as if the prize they seek is not good government for the people, but rather the destruction of their political opponents. Ideology trumps sound public policy, empty argument stands in the way of reasoned debate, and Alabama continues to stand still. Perhaps we, the people, had no reason to believe that the Republicans would be any kinder or gentler to us than the Democrats were for so long, or that the product of their rule would be to shine a light unto the darkness in which we are mired.
It’s just a shame that our lack of faith has been so richly justified.
*Correction: The print edition of Weld has this sentence as “whose children already are in public schools,” not private schools as it is (correctly) written above.