Recently, Gov. Jeb Bush visited Birmingham to spread awareness of school choice efforts in Alabama and to support the Alabama Opportunity Scholarship Fund (AOSF), which funds scholarships to over 2,000 low-income families across the state. Alabama’s program is similar to the Florida tax credit scholarship program, which was established during Bush’s tenure as governor. The Florida program has been a resounding success with nearly 100,000 low-income children currently on scholarship and resulting in a net savings for Florida taxpayers and academic achievements for public and private education in Florida. “School choice improves the chance of all children to be able to get a quality education. That is what we need in this country to be able to succeed and thrive. It is essential for Alabama’s success,” Gov. Bush said to the 60 business leaders from around the state who were in attendance.
The AOSF is giving choice to thousands of Alabama families through tax credit scholarships. Corporations and individuals may redirect up to 50 percent of their Alabama income tax liability to AOSF to support these scholarships and receive a dollar-for- dollar tax credit. Scholarships are awarded on a first come, first served basis to low-income families with students who are zoned to attend a failing public school. AOSF in partnership with Alabama taxpayers has the unique opportunity to alter the path of a child’s life in a meaningful and transformative way.
“The business community in Alabama is, by far, the largest consumer of the product created by our state’s school systems, so it is imperative that students possess the skills and education that the 21st century workplace demands,” said William Canary, Business Council of Alabama president and CEO, who moderated a panel discussion on how school choice is working in Alabama. Gov. Bush, AOSF chairman Gov. Bob Riley, AOSF Executive Director Lesley Searcy and John Kirtley, founder of Florida’s Step Up For Students and AOSF board member, were on the panel.
Alabama’s high school graduation rates are below the national average. A report from the Business Education Alliance cited that children from poor families lag far behind their peers. Too often, children are not learning the basic skills to succeed. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, only 31 percent of Alabama’s fourth graders were proficient readers in 2013, and their math scores ranked 50th in the nation. Sen. President Pro Tempore Del Marsh said, “Alabama’s children are the building blocks of our future, and they should be given every available option to succeed.” AOSF’s mission is to break down the educational barriers of poverty and zip code by empowering parents to choose the schools that best fit their child’s needs.
Gov. Riley thinks the parent-driven model AOSF uses is its greatest asset. “Where I live in Clay County, you don’t have the businesses and money that can support a program like this. When we leave the choice of where a child should go to school to the parents and have donors all across the state supporting these scholarships, you end up with kids in 36 counties on an AOSF scholarship. Those kids in counties like Clay now have a chance,” said Gov. Riley. This idea of parent choice became a theme of the event.
“This program is such an easy way for businesses and individuals to help a very vulnerable population of children who are seeking an education that meets their needs,” said Lesley Searcy, AOSF Executive Director. The AOSF cannot keep up with the demand. Since 2014, 15,000 families have applied for an AOSF scholarship with over 2,000 children currently on scholarship. Alabama taxpayers already support education and now they have the opportunity to support choice in education. “We are encouraging Alabama businesses and individuals to make a tax contribution to the scholarship organization so low-income kids can gain the power of knowledge,” said Gov. Bush.
Larry Newby is the grandfather and sole guardian of two AOSF students in Huntsville, Ala. They were one of the first families awarded an AOSF scholarship in 2014, the program’s first year. Mr. Newby and his grandsons attended the event last Friday. “I will be able to see great things I have achieved through them. Seeing them walk down the aisle with their gown and cap on. I’m already proud of them, but it will make me more tearful and joyful to see that happen,” he said of his grandsons and the bright future he sees for them. An emotional Mr. Newby said, “Looking around this room and seeing all of these people. I just never knew so many people cared about my kids’ education.”