Race and poverty complicate school choice in Alabama

Parent Choice Act is Republican incumbent At Senator Del Marsh’s Hail Mary for education reform. SB140 was dubbed the “ultimate school choice” bill because it would give participating parents $5,600 per child in state money deposited in an education savings account to be used for private school or another public school. Marsh said this bill will put everyone on a level playing field.

“All I’m trying to do is do everything I can to involve parents in their children’s education and give them options they never had before,” Marsh said. . “And I don’t think it harms the public school system in any way.”

Marsh cited Alabama low scores on standardized tests That’s why he thinks it’s time for a radical change in education. He said schools should be held accountable.

“I just think by doing that, it creates competition in the public sector, which I think is a good thing,” Marsh said. “I believe in the free market, and I think a lot of Alabamians do, and it’s time to force the public system to make changes and fix these issues of low test scores and declining act scores. “

Other supporters of this school choice bill believe it will create new opportunities for students. But critics say it’s not that simple. School choice is complicated by economic and racial disparities.

“We don’t sell products like a T-shirt that you can get at Walmart,” said Jonathan Hale, professor of educational policy at the University of Illinois. “We are looking after the lives of young people and the livelihoods of families.

Last year, Hale published a book on school choice and race titled The Choice We Face: How Segregation, Race, and Power Shaped America’s Most Controversial Education Reform Movement.

He said there were deep structural problems in Alabama’s education system that wouldn’t be solved by offering money to parents.

“School choice doesn’t help the majority of students and families who are really asking for a better education,” Hale said.

Hale said you can’t talk about parents having the power to choose where their children go to school without talking about how that power perpetuates racial inequalities in education.

“You talk about choice and that takes us away from any discussion of race and racial equity,” Hale said. “It’s the United States. If that issue isn’t front and center, politics is actually going to work against that.

When asked if this bill would benefit parents of all races, Senator Marsh said that this bill is not about race and the legislation does not mention race. But education in the South still sees the effects of segregated schools from generations ago, and it has resulted in unequal educational outcomes.

Research from the Center for Education and Civil Rights, a research collective, found that school choice tends to increase inequality and segregation. That’s because, given the choice, parents from all walks of life tend to send their children to schools with people who look like them.

Hale said that for this bill to really benefit everyone, it would have to give more power to local groups.

“I think the writing is on the wall in the state of Alabama and other Deep South states that black communities will only benefit or the majority within a black community will benefit if it is controlled by these local families and local decision makers,” he mentioned.

For some black and brown parents, having the ability to choose their children’s schools is empowering, but it doesn’t go any further. For example, the bill is opt-in for parents and schools. Thus, schools do not necessarily have to accept students who attempt to transfer.

According to Peter Joneswho teaches education policy and finance at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, parents likely to opt for college savings accounts are likely already affluent and increasingly interested in education. education of their children.

“One of the things we know about education outcomes in this state, in particular, is that it’s heavily influenced by poverty,” Jones said. “This bill is unlikely to actually address some of the underlying issues associated with poverty.

For example, the bill does not address issues such as transportation. Not all parents’ schedules allow them to take their children to another school themselves, and buses are not always available. This bill could also take money away from underfunded traditional public schools. the Legislative tax office estimated that the program would cost $537 million if fully implemented. Jones said it’s a big chunk of the Education Trust Fund.

It will also put schools in the position of feeling compelled to compete for funding.

“So what the school choice bill would mean would really be kind of a chaos in the system to try to figure out what parents want and where they’re moving,” Jones said. “What this is going to mean for Birmingham City Schools is that they’re going to basically lose some of the most motivated parents.”

Proponents of the Parents’ Choice Act believe this type of competition is a good thing because schools should be more responsive to parents.

“I think it creates greater accountability for teachers and greater accountability for school districts when they know parents have a say in per-student funds,” said TheSHunta Boler, mother of four school-age children in Birmingham.

The Bolers have three children in Birmingham City Schools and one in a charter school. She and her husband said they were loyal to BCS and happy with their children’s education, but they think this school choice bill could help others.

“We have friends and relatives, church members and mosque members, and we have different people who have different stories. And so I’m willing to try it for their benefit,” Boler said.

She said she hopes, however, that if this bill passes, it will put safeguards in place to protect parents from having their money taken advantage of. She also wants community sessions to educate parents on how education savings accounts work.

No state leader is defending Alabama‘s low education rankings, but it’s up to lawmakers to decide whether this bill, with its entanglements with race and poverty, is a solution to the problems of achievement. state school.

Kyra Miles is a Report for America member who reports on education for WBHM.

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