Henry Mabry is head of the Alabama Education Association. Historically one of the strongest special interest groups in Alabama politics, the AEA suffered one of its biggest defeats ever in February, with the passage of the Alabama Accountability Act — a bill that gives widespread tax incentives for students attending private schools or transferring to public schools deemed “non-failing.”
For several years before this, AEA had repeatedly defeated charter school proposals. This year, AEA was working with legislators in conference committees to write a School Flexibility Bill, offering incentives for students transferring from schools graded as “failing.”
The flexibility bill was extensively rewritten in a House conference committee and rushed through a successful vote in the House and Senate, becoming the sweeping voucher program that is now state law.
A number of business groups across the state backed the Flexibility Bill and — in the wake of its passage — the more extensive voucher program, the Accountability Act.
The AEA has challenged the Accountability Act in a suit in Circuit Court in Montgomery County, claiming the extensive changes made in the House committee required a rehearing of the bill and did not comply with Alabama’s sunshine law.
Mabry took over as executive secretary and treasurer of the AEA in 2003, after working as a private consultant to his predecessor, Paul Hubbert. Before that, he was chief of staff to Gov. Don Siegelman. He has been working in Montgomery politics since getting his doctorate in public administration from the University of Alabama. He was director of legislative affairs for the Business Council of Alabama and manager of state relations for Alabama Power Co.
We hope that the courts will find that the legislation was passed in an incorrect manner. The conference committee circumvented what the Legislature had previously done by taking a seven-page bill that had come out of the Senate and turned it into a 127-page bill that included the voucher provisions that were not included in either the bill in the House or the Senate, and in the whole process those extra 120 pages were nowhere to be found in the bill that was debated in the House or the Senate. What they did was they changed it all in one step of the process and did it behind closed doors. The proponents admitted that most likely it would not have passed if they had not gone this route to rush these changes through without adequate discussion of the facts.
It is now the law. However, the public, the voters, do not like what the Legislature passed and how they passed it. Our polls show 75 to 76 percent do not like the private school voucher provisions, nor do they like the manner in which it was passed. They don’t like the idea of public school money going to pay for students who are currently in private school. They don’t like how lawmakers and the governor supported this legislation without doing it in the light of day. There is more opposition on the Democratic side than the Republican side, but the overwhelming majority on both sides opposes not only the process, but the contents of the legislation. Our polling also shows that the flexibility provisions discussed in the original content of the bill, the voters are fine with that. But they do not support this private school business.
The Legislature should be cognizant of what the people think about this, but they are inclined to ignore the view of the people concerning this issue, because it’s politically popular with certain constituents. The private school voucher program is free money for thousands of parents.
The Legislature is considering changes right now to the bill, but what they are looking at is window dressing. The changes that are being considered will not dramatically affect the private school voucher section of this legislation.
In other states there are caps as far as the amount in vouchers that can be given to parents of children in private schools. This legislation does not have that cap, which is why the revenue estimate for cost ranges from $50 million to $365 million a year. Our estimates show that, once this program is fully implemented, it will cost $270 million a year. That means that the public schools — not just the target schools but every public school — will lose money, because the money comes out of our education trust fund, which is how our schools are primarily funded. If it costs $270 million a year, then those schools are looking at, across the state, a 5 percent cut in their funding. You’re punishing schools that are having a hard time, but you’re actually punishing all schools, because you’re taking money away from them and that money is going to parents of private school children. All the schools, including the schools in Mountain Brook, Homewood and Vestavia, are going to lose money under this program.
There are school voucher programs in many states of the country, and what happens — even within states with cuts in education funding — the funding for the voucher programs increases. Here in Alabama, since the beginning of the great recession, we’re had more funding cuts in education than in the rest of the country. So, instead of funding textbooks and school resource officers to protect children and employees from violent characters, we’re creating another tax giveaway program.
I have not seen any evidence whatsoever that school voucher programs improve school performance. And when this law is implemented, we’re not going to have accountability concerning private school performance, because that information will not be available. They don’t have to follow the same accountability standards. The state doesn’t even know how many private school students there are in Alabama.
I believe there are business people throughout the state who have grave concerns about the implications of this law. You don’t improve education by taking money away from it. We are taking money away from public schools as a whole when they’ve been through five years of budget cuts already. The state has got to invest more in education if the end product is going to suit the needs of businesses in the state that have to man their workforces.
I believe there are members of the Legislature on both the Democratic and Republican sides that have major concerns with this legislation. Unfortunately, these members, many of them, are unwilling to buck the leadership in the Legislature against the provisions of this act. The leadership has various sticks they can hold over their heads. There has been a lot of discussion of 2012 elections, as far as raising money, talk of committee assignments. What I have heard goes beyond what traditional legislative leaders do in the process of getting votes.
Chris McFadyen is the editorial director of Business Alabama.
Interview by Chris McFadyen