13 INVESTIGATES: Accountability Act Answers - Alabamas13.com WVTM-TV Birmingham, AL

13 INVESTIGATES: Accountability Act Answers

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Rick Gardner runs Shades Mountain Christian School in Hoover's Bluff Park.

Being a private school, Gardner could see an enrollment bump this fall.

The new Accountability Act provides tax credits and scholarships for students zoned for failing schools.

To read the Act in its entirety, click here.

That money can be used to offset tuition at schools like Shades Mountain Christian.

Gardner says while the number of new student applications has remained steady, they have seen a flurry of phone calls from potential transfers.

"When you have school choice, it creates competition.  Competition is good for all of us, either in private school, public schools, it's good on the athletic fields, it's good in business so to me that's the positive of the bill.  The other part that remains to be seen is the execution of how you pull that off," Gardner said.

That execution still has a few wrinkles which need a closer look.

For instance, students currently zoned for a failing school could get a tax credit up to $3,500 to offset the cost of transferring to another public or private school.

If one of the law's goals is to help improve failing schools, how will losing $3,500 per transfer help failing schools improve?

State Representative Chad Fincher sponsored the house version of the Accountability Act.        

He argues that tax credit only makes up 80% what the school gets per student and the rest should be enough to fix their problems.

"The child that left the school system, they are not going to have to provide any funding for them, because they don't have to find a teacher don't have to provide transportation, don't have to provide the space for them and they are still keeping twenty percent of those dollars in their district," Gardner pointed out.

The Alabama Education Association has been very outspoken against the new law.

Henry Mabry runs the organization and believes Fincher's financial understanding is unrealistic.

"Yes you have one child less to educate, but you have the remaining ones left to take care of and you still have the same fixed costs you did beforehand," Mabry argued.

Another big question which has come up is what is a failing school?

The Accountability Act spells out four main guidelines.

The school which has received one ‘F' based on overall education standards, three consecutive ‘D's' or is listed in the bottom ten percent of state assessment test scores.

The law also gives the State Superintendent the power to place a school on the failing list.  

So which schools will be on the failing list?

The State Department of Education says it could be mid-summer before they know for sure.

"None of the lists that have been circulated are accurate because they are actually based on old standards that the department had entered into an agreement with U.S. Department of Education as to how we would measure achievement," Dr. Craig Pouncey stated.

Here's another question which has popped up: do parents of students already enrolled in a private school qualify for a tax credit going forward?

"The language in the bill does not clearly state that if you're currently in a private school and if you attend a private school now and you are zoned for a failing school district you get a tax credit.  The Department of Revenue has the discretion on whether or not to allow it," Representative Fincher said.

"There is no unclear about it.  He needs to read his own bill.  It's absolutely clear and that's why there's so much turmoil around about this legislation across this state.  I mean that bill clearly gives private school vouchers to existing children's parents, I mean existing private school children's parents.  That's clear as a bell," Mabry responded.

Clear as a bell?

We decided the read the bill ourselves.

Section eight covers the issue in great detail.

You can decide how clear it is.

It states the tax credit is, "Made available to the parent of a student enrolled in or assigned to attend a failing school to offset the cost of transferring the student to a nonfailing public school or nonpublic school of the parent's choice."

It goes on to say the amount of tax credit must be, "satisfactory to the department of revenue."

Finally, if the law gives failing school students the opportunity to transfer to any passing school, public or private, can a passing school refuse a transfer?

The law only requires a school to allow a transfer if it happens inside the same school district.

For students that want to transfer to a school outside their zoned school system, it explains a student can transfer to a school, "that has available space", and is, "willing to accept the student on whatever terms and conditions the system establishes." 

When asked if a school system can turn down whatever transfer they like could lead to discrimination, Fincher responded, "I think, the process, you are going to see school districts that have the ability to offer spaces, they're going to make that available.  There are going to be some school systems that are not going to offer enrollment because they don't have the space or ability."

Ability could be applied loosely.

Rick Gardner knows of two local public school districts which have already made their decision.

"One was, we absolutely will not and the other one was more reserved and said I don't see any reason why I wouldn't.

Last week the AEA filed a lawsuit to try and stop the Accountability Act.

A previous claim was thrown out by the Alabama Supreme Court because it was filed before the legislation became law.

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