AL: A Proposal To End State Support Of Public Education

State Senator Del Marsh proposed this week the "ultimate" school choice bill, a super-education savings account. But that's not what it really is.

This is an ESA in its fully realized form-- every Alabama family gets every cent the state would have spent on educating their child (about $6,300 last year) and they can use it to pay for educational whatever--public school, home school, private school, tutoring, online classes, whatever. 

Marsh is a longtime champion of disinvestment in Alabama public ed, having pushed charters and charter expansion in previous years (he also co-sponsored a bill to make bribery of legislators by lobbyists legal).

This is a big deal, a bill that changes the rules for education in an entire state, but coverage so far has been light (the bill was supposedly going to be filed yesterday) and details. 

One early complaint is that the bill would cost the state about $420 billion in education funds. Alabama Education Association executive director Army Marlowe also called out the bill for its lack of transparency and its generosity to private operators:

Senator Marsh’s “Parent’s Choice Bill” should be called exactly what it is – “No Vendor Left Behind “ – a shell game of a voucher program to divert money from Alabama’s community schools. There is a complete lack of transparency regarding this egregious bill by rushing it through committee this week. Regardless of whether Senators have been given the opportunity to study the bill, by filing it this week and expecting it to not only be in committee, but to be voted out of a committee is mind blowing. A bill of this magnitude that would result in more than $420 million cut from the Education Trust Fund rushed through committee without the opportunity for at least a week of scrutiny by the public and the media makes you wonder why Sen. Marsh is in such a hurry to move this bill.

Yes, this bill would eat a ton of taxpayer dollars, and yes it would gut the public education system in Alabama. There is one other huge effect that comes with voucher-style bills that seems to be rarely discussed--it ends the state's involvement with and support of its children. 

In an online interview, education lab reporter Trish Powell Crain points out that this is bigger than charters or vouchers. "It's the ultimate 'here, take the money and parents, you go decide how you want to spend this money to educate your child.'"

Yes. "We've given you a check, and we hereby wash our hands of the whole education thing." The ultimate form of voucher is not about empowering parents. It's not even about making vendors a bunch of money. It's about getting the state out of the education business, about cutting parents and children loose. It's about ending the collective commitment to and responsibility for educating the next generations.

There are always critical questions to ask about oversight in these bills. Who will make sure that the money is actually spent on legitimate educational expenses? Who will watch out for the interests of the taxpayers?

But equally critical are the safeguards for families, and ESA laws typically have none. What supports will be in place for families that don't have the time or resources to search for the right vendors (and who will make sure those supports are reliable)? What if a parent's money runs out? What if parents find their choices severely limited because the various edu-vendors won't accept their child? What if one of their vendors closes shop mid-year, leaving the child stranded? What if the vendor turns out to be a big scam because the state hasn't properly vetted the eligible vendors? What happens if parents find that the Marketplace is not for them, but in the meantime the local public school has collapsed from the money gutted from it? 

The bill is being rammed through the legislature this week, and if it becomes law, it will face the hurdle that many such laws have faced--getting parents to actually use it. Watch to see if, in Alabama, Americans for Prosperity repeats its successful tactic from New Hampshire, where they went door to door to hype the new voucher program, boosting participation big time

I didn't have Alabama in my pool for where the voucher end game would be first tried, but here we are. Watch and learn and, if you're in Alabama, call your legislator today.