Winston County legislators give their views on School Choice

HALEYVILLE    -  Winston County’s delegation of state legislators recently received an earful of concerns from educators, who are very troubled about the possibility of the state taking funding away from public schools and giving it to private schools, points made during a legislative meet-and-greet held at Haleyville High School.
Haleyville City Schools Superintendent Dr. Holly Sutherland began addressing the topic in her state-of-the-school address, with a serious tone about the battle in the state legislature that could be financially detrimental to public school systems.
Seated on the panel to hear the concerns and provide comments were State Senator Garlan Gudger, as well as State Representatives Tracy Estes and Tim Wadsworth.

Governor Ivey promotes Choose Act

In her annual State of the State Address February 6, Governor Kay Ivey noted that a historic amount has been invested in public school systems during her tenure, and the state once again has the largest Education Trust Fund in state history.  Ivey also promised another pay increase for teachers this upcoming legislative session.
Ivey then stated that the needs of all students must be met by making sure they have opportunities available to them.
“For some families, that means having the chance to send their child to a charter, magnet or private school, or to homeschool them,” Ivey stated.
“School choice is a spectrum, and last year, we recognized that to expand our options in Alabama, we had to first improve our existing options--charter schools and the Alabama Accountability Act,” Ivey continued.
Ivey noted the next step would be to provide parents, beginning with those most in need, education savings accounts, “which will further us on our journey to become the most  school-choice friendly state in the nation,” she said.
Ivey continued that her number one legislative priority is passing an education savings account bill that works for families and for the state.
She noted she was proud to have education budget chairmen Senator Arthur Orr and Representative Danny Garrett carrying what is known as the Choose Act.
“Once we get this legislation across the finish line, we will prepare for the program to begin in the 2025-2026 academic year,” Ivey stated.
“For its first two years, we will be helping families who might not otherwise have the option to afford to send their children to the school of their choice through these $7,000 educational savings accounts,” Ivey pointed out.
The Choose Act would provide up to $7,000 per child enrolled at an accredited participating private or public school through an educational savings account funded by a new refundable income tax credit, according to the governor’s office.  Also, families who opt for homeschooling could receive up to $2,000 per homeschooled student, with a $4,000 cap for families with more than one home-schooler for eligible educational expenses, the governor further stated.

HCS Superintendent Speaks Out

All of these ideas presented by the governor greatly concern educators  at Haleyville City Schools, who expressed their outrage about the plan to legislators at the public forum.
“There are many things about this that concern me,” Sutherland pointed out.  “We have 743,000 students here in public schools and we have 80,000 who are in private schools. But we’re considering taking $500 million away from public schools and giving it to students who would go to a private school.
“How can we not have prayer in school, yet a private school can be supported by public funding?” Sutherland questioned. “That is illegal. It is illegal for public money to go to a private Christian school.
“What is the equity?” Sutherland said. “Our kids don’t have a choice.  I understand the private school sector enough to know that if you tell them they have to serve special-ed kids, they have to serve kids with special needs, they have to serve minority kids, they have to serve poverty kids.  They can choose not to serve those kids.  Are they going to make (private schools) follow the same rules?
“If they choose not to serve those kids, then those kids have no choice but to go to public schools,” Sutherland pointed out.
School Choice, she continued, would not be set up for students from failing schools or  students who already have challenges or do not have transportation.
“If a private school costs $12,000 to $25,000, and  you’re giving me $6,900, I don’t even have the money to make up the difference,” Sutherland stated.
“There is only so much money, so if we go into a recession or once ESSER money is over and once these federal dollars stop, then, if you’re taking money away from education, there won’t be any more teacher raises,” Sutherland explained.
“There won’t be classroom supply money at the rate it is now.  There won’t be all those extras we have to have to support public education,” she further emphasized.
“We need funding for areas in our (public) schools, such as special education, summer reading programs or transportation,” she added.
“We need to continue to be cognizant of class sizes, sufficient counselors, administrators in our schools, instructional paraprofessionals,” Sutherland emphasized.
Sutherland stressed that these areas would be challenged over the next year.
“Our motto in our school district this year is “On a Mission,” she said.  “We are on a mission to provide all students with the best possible educational and extracurricular opportunities possible.”
Sutherland then encouraged state legislators to join them in that mission.
“We worry that there are leaders across this state who are not on this mission with us,” Sutherland further emphasized.   “These teams support taking money from our most vulnerable and underprivileged students across the state and giving that money to students who attend private schools.
“These private schools have no accountability at this point with the Literacy Act, with the Numeracy Act, to meet state requirements under ACAP (testing) and to be publicly reported upon in a report card.”
Sutherland urged legislators to continue funding public education.
“I would like to say I am not against private schools,” Sutherland noted. “I am against taking  public money and funding private education.
“I know you guys will face some tough decisions,” Sutherland said, turning to the seated legislators. “I pray when we make decisions, and you guys make decisions, that we are focused on our kids.”

School board member questions
legislators about School Choice

The first question from the audience to legislators, after Sutherland spoke, was from Haleyville Board of Education Member Donna Jones, regarding her issues with School Choice.
“I got to doing some research on ( the School Choice issue) and there are some things that really bother me about it because it is going to affect our public education here in Haleyville, Alabama, as well as public education all over the state,” Jones pointed out.
“The private school voucher program takes public  funding away from our public schools,” Jones said. “We strongly oppose any private school choice that does not meet academic standards that our public schools must meet.”
Jones cited achievement test scores and report cards as examples.
Specifically addressing legislators, Jones then said, “How can you protect public education and its funding, and can we count on each of you to be in opposition of public school funding to be used in the private school voucher program?
“The $6,900 per student is going to come from the funds that come through that are given us to run and operate our public school system,” Jones emphasized.

State legislators voice
their stances on issue

The first legislator to respond was Gudger.
“There are schools where there are children who are unsafe.  They are being  bullied. Their parents can’t afford to take them to a private school.  There are places where bad things are happening, and they are stuck because  they do not have any other options to go to school, period,” Gudger began.
Gudger then stated his district has some of the best public schools in the entire state.
“As a human, I want to make sure I say this  because it pulls on my heartstrings,” he continued.   “We visited a lot of these schools, and it hurts your heart because you see children hurting.  Our goal is to help the innocent  and help the children, the students.
“As far as my vote, to be very clear as to where I am on this, I’ll be voting no against that bill,” Gudger stated.
“I don’t see there is a reason to take public dollars away to the private sector,” Gudger pointed out.
However, he warned the audience that a no vote on such a bill would bring political consequences  to legislators, especially since Ivey is backing School Choice, and it is receiving support from many within the State House and Senate, Gudger explained.
“There will be repercussions for us not voting the way they want us to,” Gudger pointed out. “There will be something you have asked for that we are not going to get.  That is politics, and we have to all live with it because it’s Montgomery.”
At the forum, Estes wanted to make his stance on the issue quite clear.
“No, I will not be supporting School Choice,” Estes said. “There will be those who seek out competition to run against us in the next election.  Those Republicans who vote against it will be political targets.
“I am going to say again, I am voting no, but realize this no vote is not as simple as it may seem to our superintendent, our principals and our school boards,” Estes continued.
Estes noted that those who take and plan to live off the $6,900 per child (for multiple children in the same family), but do not teach their children or make sure they learn will one day want to send them into public schools, where they will already be behind academically.
“And look at the burden we’ve got, trying to catch a child up who had nothing from an academic perspective for five or six years,” Estes stated.
Estes addresses mailer with his picture

After the forum, a mailer was circulated featuring a picture of Estes with the wording “Urge your state representative Tracy Estes to support Ernie Yarbrough’s TRUE school choice bill.”
Estes, as well as others have found that mailer to be misleading, so he sought to set the record straight by saying the picture used was taken by someone else from his personal Facebook page and used without his knowledge.
“Let me assure my friends in the education family, that my stance on this issue is unchanged,” Estes assured. “It is firm. It is not changing. I am fully opposed to School Choice.
“The vast majority of people in my district depend on public schools to educate their children,” Estes added. “What happens if we support School Choice?  It is going to take millions of dollars out of the Education Trust Fund.  That means there’s that much less money to come back to my schools.”
Wadsworth noted he would vote no on School Choice and would not waiver in his decision.
“I have been a no since 2014,” Wadsworth cited. “I have never voted for any bill that can take school funding or use credits.”
Wadsworth explained that in the past, academic scholarships came from a single pot of money at the state.
“We don’t have private schools in Winston County,” Wadsworth said. “Therefore, what they are doing is, when they take money for Mobile, Greene County, Birmingham, Montgomery, they are taking money from the pot that actually affects Winston County.
“I am not taking funding away from folks in Winston County, because that is just the way it is,” Wadsworth concluded. “I am a hardcore no.”

AEA comments on School Choice

Wendy Lang, district 5 director for the Alabama Education Association, stressed the funds to be used for private schools or home-schooled individuals will come from the Education Trust Fund.
“My job with the Alabama Education Association is to protect the Education Trust Fund,” Lang pointed out. “We are going to do that.
“I believe every child has a right to a free public education, and I believe our public school teachers work harder than anybody else,” Lang added.
“They are investing one day at a time in our future, which is our children,” she continued.
In comparing apples to apples in education, Lang stressed those looking at homeschooling or private schools, “shouldn’t you as a parent want the same advantage you have as a public school parent, to know where your children stand, what they are learning and if they have mastered what they are learning?” Lang stated.
“I hope (legislators) see that our public schools are accountable for teaching these children specific standards,” she pointed out. “We’re held accountable by the testing, by what we teach, documenting what we teach, documenting that each child has learned what they have supposed to learn.
“If one is held accountable, the other needs to be held accountable, as well,” Lang concluded.


See complete story in the Northwest Alabamian.
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