By signing a school-voucher bill into law Thursday, Gov. Bentley placed Alabama on an uncertain path in how the state educates children. The shame — the crying shame, even — is that we didn’t have to go this way. At the least, before signing it into law the governor could have demanded the Legislature address a host of deficiencies exposed since its passage on Feb. 28.
Most state legislatures, including Alabama’s, are notorious procrastinators. Important bills sit around most of a session and then are passed in a mad rush in the final hours of a term. Governors are then left to unsort the mess that lands on their desk a few minutes before midnight on the legislature’s final day.
That’s not been the case with the so-called Alabama Accountability Act of 2013. The Republican-conceived legislation was cloaked in secrecy until two weeks ago when its radical, untested and unexamined notions about altering public schooling were quickly rushed through the House and Senate. Then, just as Bentley was readying his pen to sign it, the Alabama Education Association convinced a judge to hit pause on the signing ceremony.
For a week, Alabamians (including Bentley) had a chance to contemplate the implications of creating a school voucher program that offers tax credits to parents who transfer their children from “failing” schools to a private school or another public school. This is the sort of examination that almost all significant legislation undergoes through hearings and legislative committee proceedings. The Republicans who run the Legislature denied this measure a fair hearing so experts could weigh in on the merits and demerits of the proposal. Instead, a court’s temporary restraining order on the governor handed us the next best thing — a crowd-sourced probe of this bill.
And the crowd delivered. Deep questions cropped up: Can the state afford this? Will it hollow out “failing” public schools and in the process only deepen their woes? Will public and private schools be required to accept transfers under this law? How can parents be sure the private school their transfer their kids is better than their old school? What about districts like Anniston, where a federal court order restricts movement of students from one public school to the other? And on and on.
Beyond the process questions, there are those of appearances. This bill was conceived in secret by Bentley, Senate Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, House Speaker Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, and a few other Republican lawmakers. Cut out of the loop were educators, administrators, education advocates, parents and others with a stake in the success of Alabama public schools, which is really all of us when you come to think of it. In not too-subtle language: Bentley, Marsh, Hubbard and the other Republican ideologues running the show in Montgomery told the state: After decades of under-funding schools, we’re going to introduce a radical and untested plan for the worst performers. Your views, objections and concerns don’t matter.
That might as well have been part of the document Bentley signed Thursday. He and the rest of Montgomery’s know-it-alls are forging ahead. As usual, the rest of the state will be left to deal with this mess.