Some people define insanity as doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results.
Alabama’s Education Trust Fund budget has grown by 16% since 2019, with another increase almost certain in 2023. Despite these record budgets, Alabama remains near or at the bottom of most competency test scores.
I’d call that insanity.
Tuesday, I witnessed around 200 people gathered on the steps of the Alabama State House to voice their support for school choice in Alabama and stop the insanity that is public education. The cast of speakers was impressive, including Lieutenant Governor Will Ainsworth and Chairman of the Alabama Republican Party, John Wahl.
It is past time for Alabama’s government to unleash the power of school choice in this state. The show of support from students, parents, lawmakers, and advocates illustrates that Alabamians are fed up with the current state of education in Alabama and want change.
In its introduced form, Senate Bill 140, which is currently moving through the legislative process, would allow students and parents that choice. The bill would give parents control of approximately $5,600, the state share of what would be spent on their child in a traditional public school and allow them to educate their child however they see fit. That could mean a public school outside their current district, private school, a home school environment, or something else. If passed in its original form, the Parent’s Choice Act would be a major victory for students and parents. If significantly changed, it would mean incremental progress at best which takes years to materialize.
The speakers at Tuesday’s rally echoed the importance of choice. Ainsworth said that “A zip code should not determine a child’s success in where they go to school in Alabama.”
Wahl said that school choice wasn’t just about education but one of the principles of conservatism, individual freedom and liberty. He went on to say that “More regulation and more money do not fix education.” That has certainly been proven in Alabama.
Speaking at Tuesday’s rally Rep. Charlotte Meadows (R-Montgomery) reflected on her efforts to improve school choice over the last decade as well as the need for bolder reforms.
In 2013, the legislature enacted the Alabama Accountability Act (AAA), which established a tax-credit-based scholarship program, providing financial aid so that students in failing public schools could transfer elsewhere. Two years later the legislature enacted a bill to allow the establishment of charter schools in Alabama. Charter schools are funded much like public schools but are largely free from state education regulations.
While the AAA and charter school programs have helped some students, they are not available to nearly enough. According to Meadows, about 6,500 students have benefited from the AAA and charter schools. There are an estimated 725,900 students enrolled in Alabama’s public schools this year. That’s less than 1% of students utilizing some form of school choice.
While supporters of the AAA scholarship program and charter schools have helped expand school choice in Alabama, those efforts do not go far enough to significantly alter the quality of education within the state. The AAA has been chronically underfunded. There are currently just seven charter schools operating in Alabama, though two more have been approved. That is why passing a comprehensive school choice bill this session is so important.
Those gathered on the State House steps do not represent a vocal minority. Many Alabamians share the same passion for wanting their children to have more educational options. A 2020 Cygnal poll commissioned by the Alabama Policy Institute found that over 80% of respondents supported school choice.
With widespread support and so many powerful allies, why has moving forward with a comprehensive school choice program been so difficult? The Alabama Education Association, a powerful lobby for not just teachers, but all education support personnel, points to the potentially more than $500 million in education funding that parents and students could take control of. But with already bloated budgets and a $1.2 billion revenue surplus in 2021, public education is unlikely to suffer.
And money shouldn’t be the deciding factor in the school choice debate anyway. The current system of putting more money in and accepting the same bad results is broken. It should be about what is best for students. Adopting a full school choice model in Alabama will not only stop the current insanity but leave students better prepared for their futures.
This column was edited from the original by the author to better reflect his view that the bill, "if significantly changed, it would mean incremental progress at best which takes years to materialize."
Justin Bogie serves as Senior Director of Fiscal Policy at the Alabama Policy Institute. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to: Commentary@1819News.com.