Craig Ford proposes moving $40 million for Accountability Act to AMSTI program

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House Minority Leader Craig Ford, D-Gadsden, seen here on Feb. 6, 2013, wants to move $40 million targeted for Alabama Accountability Act into efforts to expand the Alabama Math Science and Technology Initiative. (Photo courtesy of the House Democratic Caucus)

House Minority Leader Craig Ford, D-Gadsden, seen here on Feb. 6, 2013, wants to move $40 million targeted for Alabama Accountability Act into efforts to expand the Alabama Math Science and Technology Initiative. (Photo courtesy of the House Democratic Caucus)

House Minority Leader Craig Ford, D-Gadsden, said Thursday he will introduce a bill that would repeal the Alabama Accountability Act and divert about $40 million earmarked for the program to fund an expansion of the Alabama Math Science and Technology Initiative (AMSTI).

Ford, one of many Democratic critics of the act, said the law that allows students in schools designated as failing to transfer to private schools “has clearly failed.”

“We know the true intent of what they had for the Accountability Act,” Ford said at a press conference in the State House.  “It was nothing more than to send certain children to private schools.”

The Accountability Act, passed amid chaotic scenes in the Alabama Senate last February and revised later in the session, allows the families of students in schools designated as failing to take tax credits worth more than $3,500 and transfer to a non-failing public school or a private school.  The law also authorizes the creation of “scholarship granting organizations” (SGOs) that would allow qualifying students to apply for scholarships to pay for private school.

The provisions, placed in a conference committee bill that initially dealt with school flexibility, were stoutly defended by Republicans, who said that the legislation would give children unable to get out of failing schools a chance at a quality education, and foster competition.

At the time, estimates of the costs of the program varied widely, running from $50 million to $367 million.  After negotiations, lawmakers put an unearmarked $40 million into the Education Trust Fund, estimated to absorb the costs of the program.

This year, the costs will likely be far smaller, due to a lack of utilization.  In June, the Alabama Department of Education estimated that about 30,005 students statewide – roughly four percent of the total student enrollment, were enrolled in a school listed as failing.  As of September 3, just 52 students statewide – including 33 in Montgomery – had transferred out of failing schools and into a private school, according to the ALSDE.  Some 719 students have transferred to schools within their system, which was an option under the federal No Child Left Behind act.

According to AMSTI’s website, about 400,000 Alabama students, slightly more than half of the total enrollment in the state, participated in AMSTI in FY 2012, which ran from Oct. 1, 2011 to Sept. 30, 2012.  The program is currently in 724 of the state’s roughly 1,500 K to 12 schools.

Michael Sibley, a spokesman for the ALSDE, said it would cost an additional $46 to $50 million a year “every year, for five years” to expand the program to every school in the state.

The proposal likely faces long odds.  Republicans hold filibuster-proof majorities in the House and Senate, but Ford said “we have a plan” to help education.

Ford said he will submit his bill in the next Legislative session, which begins in January.

– posted by Brian Lyman

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