What does “Accountability” really mean in Alabama?
Updated On: Apr 07, 2023

If the intention of the AAA was really to improve schools, the state curiously chose two methods that had no chance of actually improving student learning or our public schools overall.

By WES LYBRAND | Guest Opinion | Published on March 27, 2023

ith the passage of the Alabama Accountability Act (AAA) in 2013, Alabama joined a growing trend of states pursuing policies that have done nothing but undermine public schools. Done under the guise of improving schools, the true goal of the legislature was to privatize the public system. To that end, the Alabama Accountability Act authorized a voucher scheme, followed shortly after by legalization of charter schools. To sell citizens on their plan, the legislature created the “failing schools” list, defined by the lowest performing six percent of public schools based on standardized testing. This list gives a false perception of our schools so that they can claim the solution is charter schools and voucher schemes. These policies are disastrous to student learning and to the Alabama public education system as a whole.

If the intention of the AAA was really to improve schools, the state curiously chose two methods that had no chance of actually improving student learning or our public schools overall. Charter schools are rife with fraud, and have cost the federal government at least one billion dollars so far. Only thirty percent of charters show any improvement in student ability in math, and only twenty-five percent in reading. This is part of the reason why twenty-five percent of charters close within five years, and half close within fifteen years. Worse than charter schools, school vouchers invite fraudulent schools to open to pocket public money and keep struggling private schools open. In multiple studies, vouchers have actually led to learning loss greater than Hurricane Katrina and the coronavirus pandemic. So why do we squander precious tax dollars that should be spent on public schools on schemes that do not improve student learning? 

Because the intention was privatization, not improving our public schools. In 2014, Senator Del Marsh admitted the point of the AAA all along was to fund private schools. It was, in part, copied from model legislation pushed by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) that passed in other states. ALEC is partially funded by the Koch family, who has long sought to privatize the school system. ALEC’s bills to privatize public education are often promoted by the American Federation for Children, which is the dark money arm of the Alliance for School Choice, organized and funded by the DeVos family. Like the Kochs, the DeVos family has pushed for “school choice,” a euphemism for privatization. It passed under chaotic circumstances that saw a nine page bill suddenly triple in size, a move the opposition called a bait and switch. In 2015, after Marsh’s confession, the state adopted changes to the AAA to make it more of a “school choice” law. 

Each year, in compliance with the Alabama Accountability Act, the state Department of Education releases its “failing schools” list. If your child attends one of these schools, as a parent you have access to tax credits intended to offset the costs of relocating your student to a private school. The “failing schools” list is nothing short of an attempt to create a contrived reality around what happens in public schools to push public funding into private pockets. On the surface, it may make sense to use a standardized test like the ACT to measure student achievement at the high school level. However, the ACT is not aligned with what is taught in Alabama schools, and as it turns out, testing is a poor predictor of how students perform in college. Because of this, many colleges are dropping testing for admissions. Furthermore, standardized tests are rooted in racism and have a long history of class bias. According to the ACT’s own research, lower income students score over 15% lower than higher income students. This fact is worsened by Alabama’s regressive and inequitable system of school funding. The result is that students who end up on the “failing” list tend to attend underfunded schools with high concentrations of poverty.

Standardized tests do not capture how students learn, nor the environments in which they do so. Education is a dynamic process. Due to a variety of factors - interests, health, homelife, and socioeconomic status among them - students do not learn at the same pace, nor do they learn in equitable environments. Students living in poverty usually have fewer resources to be able to do schoolwork and make academic progress than those who are more affluent. This fact is compounded by the problematic way in which the AAA has been implemented in schools. For example, at the high school level, the status of the entire school is determined by one standardized test, given on one day at the 11th grade level. It does not capture how students have made progress from year to year. If it did, it would be clear that all students learn at all schools, albeit at different rates for different reasons. And some of the reasons that disrupt student learning have nothing to do with what happens within the classroom. The only failure here is not on the schools or the students, but on us as a state and a society that do not allow all students to have what they need to live, learn, and thrive. 

Instead, the Alabama Accountability Act stigmatizes schools and communities and undermines the public system. The “failing” label creates a public perception that no learning is happening in those schools, and that the best option for the students is to move them to a different school. However, studies show that students who move schools often demonstrate negative behavioral and educational outcomes. Another consequence of the student leaving the public school system is the effective defunding of those schools. Both charter schools and vouchers leach money away from public schools, yet the operating costs of the public schools remain largely the same, making it more difficult for those schools and their remaining students to get the help they need. Even if a school improves in this problematic system, by defining “failing” as the bottom six percent of schools, there will always be schools stigmatized.

Despite over a decade of these “school choice” schemes, public schools remain extremely popular amongst parents with school aged children, with at least seventy-five percent support across multiple polls. So in order to stir more distrust between parents, educators, and the school system, privatizers have cooked up new controversies over teaching Black history (falsely labeled as critical race theory),  anti-LGTBQ+ attacks, and campaigning against teachers’ unions. This has turned schools into fronts of the raging culture war, a development parents overwhelmingly do not want to see. It’s all to push the myth of failing schools

Improving schools was never the point of the Alabama Accountability Act. It was purely designed to privatize a public service, one that is essential to a thriving democracy, through the means of school voucher schemes and the related phenomena of charter schools. To do so, the state manufactured a “failing schools” list to lessen the perception of public schools. The victims of these schemes are frequently the poorest and most vulnerable among us. Alabama deserves a top rate education system. And we know what makes schools work—ask the educators. The Alabama Accountability Act and its false narrative of “failing” schools does nothing to give schools or students the support they need. It is only a way to undermine public schools. Alabama’s students, educators, and citizenry deserve better.

Wes Lybrand has worked in education for fourteen years, including as a high school history teacher for the last seven years. In addition to teaching, Wes spends time doing research on the history of white supremacy and civil rights in Alabama.

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