In 1963, Alabama Governor George Wallace stood in the doorway of Foster Auditorium to block the “schoolhouse door” in order to prevent black students from enrolling at The University of Alabama. Fifty years later, there are still people trying block “schoolhouse doors.” This time, it is Alabama’s education union and their judicial allies trying to block the door from the outside to keep predominately poor and minority students from leaving failing schools.
On February 28th, the Alabama State Legislature passed the Alabama Accountability Act which gives local schools more flexibility in the administration of their schools and also establishes a tax-credit scholarship program that will provide funding to allow students locked into failing schools to go to a better school. There have been few bills passed by the Alabama State Legislature that have been as significant as the passage of the Alabama Accountability Act. Despite all the wailing and gnashing of teeth by the education union, otherwise known as the Alabama Education Association (AEA), Democrat state legislators, and Alabama’s liberal media, the Accountability Act could literally be a lifesaver for Alabama school children who are forced to attend schools that are little more than dropout factories.
Compared to high school graduates, dropouts earn less income, are in worse health, and are disproportionately incarcerated. Most criminologists agree that there is a clear link to lack of education and criminal activity, especially among African-American males. Currently, even though African-Americans represent 26.5 percent of the population of Alabama, they make up 60 percent of our prison population. And among those in our prisons, regardless of race, over 60 percent are high school dropouts. According to a report from Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, a national anti-crime organization made up of 4,000 police chiefs, sheriffs, district attorneys, and violence survivors, increasing graduation rates by 10 percentage points will prevent 76 murders and 2,093 assaults in Alabama each year.
There is a clear link between dropping out of school and crime, particularly when dropouts are from low-income households. According to a report by Crime in America, in 2008 the dropout rate for students in low-income families was about four and a half times higher than for students in high-income families. The Alabama Accountability Act targets children in failing schools which are predominantly in low-income communities.
But just because a student comes from a lower-income family does not mean the student will fail to finish high school. A report for academic years 2009-10 and 2010-11from the administrators of the Opportunity Scholarship Program in Washington, D.C., showed a graduation rate of 94 percent for participating students, with 89 percent going on to a two-year or four-year college. The last U.S. government study of the Opportunity Scholarship Program reported a graduation rate of 91 percent for students in the program which was more than 30 points higher than the students in the D.C. public schools.
Moreover, the U.S. Department of Education reported that students in the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program gained 3.1 months learning in reading over students in the D.C. public school system. In fact, Dr. Patrick J. Wolf, principal investigator for the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education reported that the D.C. program has proven to be the most effective education policy evaluated by the federal government’s research arm so far.
Other studies show that scholarship programs that allow students to leave schools that have developed a culture of failure are making a difference, regardless of income or previous academic performance. In Florida, students who tended to be the lowest-performing students in low-performing schools, achieved gains in reading and math that matched the performance of all students nationally, regardless of income.
A Brookings Institution and Harvard University study of the privately-funded New York School Choice Scholarships Foundation Program found that the enrollment rates in select colleges for African-American students participating in that program more than doubled and the enrollment rate for full-time colleges was 31 percent higher.
Having an opportunity to attend a school with good academic standards that focuses on graduating its students will be transformative for many students, especially African-American male students from low-income households. The passage of the Alabama Accountability Act will force state officials to confront the fact that Alabama schools are still segregated; today it is income segregation that disproportionally impacts African-American families.
Despite what the AEA and other opponents are saying, the Alabama Accountability Act is long overdue in education justice and a first step on the path out of poverty and crime for thousands of Alabama school children.
The AEA and other opponents need to stop blocking the door.
Gary Palmer is president and co-founder of the Alabama Policy Institute, an independent, non-profit research and education organization dedicated to the preservation of free markets, limited government and strong families, which are indispensable to a prosperous society.
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