As politicians regularly use the promise of improved education to get elected or re-elected, so goes the way of Alabama politics.  However, in an area that is struggling with dismal funding and substantial drop out rates, Alabama Republicans drove the knife a little deeper in the public education system this past week.

The state congress gleefully pushed through a controversial bill that promises huge tax rewards to those parents who take their children from struggling public schools and enroll them in private schools.  It is Alabama’s version of the “voucher” program.  It is a way to get wealthier children out of a “failing” school that has been assigned low scores on a variety of standard measures of school performance.  That is the Republican-dominated Congress’ proposed solution – not to improve the quality of education and overcome failing grades, but to induce parents who can afford it to send their children to private schools and leave the poorer children behind.

Although studies have repeatedly confirmed that the economic impact of low graduation rates is huge and wide reaching, the new bill appears to foster the underlying problem.  Alabama’s graduation rate is far worse than the national average, ranking between 42nd and 47th for at least 25 years.  Four out of 10 students do not finish high school in Alabama, and a class-room full of students drop out every day  according to a 2008 study by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Henry Mabry, the Alabama Education Association Executive Secretary, said he had been lied to and that the last minute changes to the original education bill were “totally unacceptable.”  He noted that congress is trying to give public money to private schools. Representative Mary Moore, a Birmingham Democrat went further:  “Welcome to the new confederacy where a bunch of white men are now going to take over black schools.”

The House of Representatives approved the bill by a 51-26 vote. The Senate approved the bill 22-11., and Governor Bentley is expected to sign the bill this week.

Virginia Buchanan is a shareholder at Levin, Papantonio.  She has served on the Board of Directions of the Florida Bar Foundation and has been Treasurer of ABOTA, Chairperson of the Civil Process Server Grievance Committee and has been a member of the Chief Judge’s Council on Children. She currently is a member of the Women’s Caucus of the Florida Justice Association.