State education officials this week released a list of "failing schools" as required by the Alabama Legislature, even though some of those schools have made significant improvements in student achievement in the past two years.
This apparent contradiction comes as state school and revenue officials struggle to make a flawed and imprecise piece of legislation work while doing as little harm as possible to public education in Alabama.
Provisions of the Alabama Accountability Act involving so-called failing schools was tacked onto existing legislation with little or no public debate or input from state school administrators. Predictably, the state officials who have to find ways to make it work are not having an easy go of it.
The State Department of Education this week released a list of 78 "failing schools" as defined by the Accountability Act. Under the legislation, parents of students who are zoned for those schools and who transfer their children from the failing school to a private school can receive a tax credit for the cost of the private school education.
Also this week, the Alabama Department of Revenue issued language that says the tax credits cannot be claimed by parents who already have their children in private schools.
Even as State Superintendent of Education Tommy Bice met his legal requirement to release the list of schools, he made the point that many of them have shown "unbelievable growth" in student achievement that should be models for turning around schools.
The act defines a school as failing that "has been listed three or more times during the then-most recent six years in the lowest six percent of public K-12 schools on the state standardized assessment in reading and math."
But that definition allows a school that has shown dramatic improvement in the past year or two to still be listed as failing.
Bice has repeatedly made the point that schools that have been low performing but that are making improvement should not be on the list, even though the law as written requires it.
I would agree, but only if the improvement is significant.
Of the 78 schools identified statewide as failing, 45 are middle schools or junior high schools. And all of them are schools with high poverty rates for students. That pattern is even more pronounced in Montgomery County, where six of the eight schools to make the list are middle schools.
Which brings me to some observations on the ongoing public debate over the Accountability Act:
-- Some public relations advice for Superintendent Bice: You have to follow the law in determining what schools are affected by the Accountability Act, but you and the Department of Education could do a better job of drawing a distinction between those schools on the list that are still truly failing and those that are showing dramatic improvement.
For instance, in releasing the list of affected schools, the department consistently should label the full list as "Accountability Act Schools," not "failing schools." Then this full list should be broken down into two categories -- schools that have a history of failing but that are showing recent and significant improvement, and schools that are continuing to fail.
Drawing such a distinction would not change the legal impact of the law, but it would mitigate the negative public relations impact on the image of those schools on the list where the hard work of teachers, administrators and students has shown significant improvement in student achievement.
-- Lots of headlines and public comment on the list of failing schools have focused on the fact that all of the schools have students with high rates of poverty and many of them have high percentages of minority students.
Those are significant factors, and they should be included in the public discussion. It is true that a high poverty rate is a hurdle that educators have to overcome to improve student achievement.
But in discussing these factors, public officials have to be careful that they never are seen as using them as excuses for failure.
The fact is that there are many examples of high-poverty and high-minority schools in Alabama where student achievement is high as well. (Highland Avenue Elementary in Montgomery is one consistent example.)
Jim Williams, executive director of the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama, constantly makes this point in discussing student achievement, saying: "Demographics is not destiny." In other words, all students can learn, and poverty and race should never be allowed to be used as an excuse for low student achievement.
-- The state Revenue Department's ruling that the tax credit would not apply to students who are already in private schools mitigates one of the more objectionable results of the Alabama Accountability Act -- the transfer of taxpayer money from public education to private schools.
Until that ruling, public education officials were right to be concerned about the negative impact of the act on the revenues that flow to public schools and colleges.
But as a report this week by Raycom political reporter Max Reiss makes clear, some legislators are not content to leave well enough alone and plan to try to get that interpretation overturned.
The public should watch that effort closely to see which legislators are focused on allowing students in failing schools to have an alternative, and which ones really just want to shift taxpayer money from public schools to private ones.
-- One final point: Don't assume that because most high schools avoided being on the failing list that they are doing well academically. There is no way that so many junior and middle schools are doing poorly and the high schools that they feed students into are not being impacted. I suspect that one reason relatively few high schools made the failing list is that it is based to a degree on the notoriously easy high school graduation exam, which is being phased out in favor of end-of-course tests. And, of course, many of the high schools have such low graduation rates that the worst students in middle schools may never make it to the high schools.
As the debate over the Accountability Act continues in future months and years, changes in it almost certainly will occur. The public should push their public officials to make the law more about improving low performing schools, and less about shifting public money to private schools.
ON THE WEB: Alabama Dept. of Education
Ken Hare was a longtime Alabama newspaper editorial writer and editorial page editor who now writes a regular column for WSFA's web site. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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