Ken Hare In Depth: 'Failing schools' unfair label for some, but not others

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - State education officials this week released a list of"failing schools" as required by the Alabama Legislature, even thoughsome of those schools have made significant improvements in student achievementin the past two years.

This apparent contradiction comes as state school andrevenue officials struggle to make a flawed and imprecise piece of legislationwork while doing as little harm as possible to public education in Alabama.

Provisions of the Alabama Accountability Act involvingso-called failing schools was tacked onto existing legislation with little orno public debate or input from state school administrators. Predictably, thestate officials who have to find ways to make it work are not having an easy goof it.

The State Department of Education this week released alist of 78 "failing schools" as defined by the Accountability Act.Under the legislation, parents of students who are zoned for those schools andwho transfer their children from the failing school to  a private school can receive a tax credit forthe cost of the private school education.

Also this week, the Alabama Department of Revenue issuedlanguage that says the tax credits cannot be claimed by parents who alreadyhave their children in private schools.

Even as State Superintendent of Education Tommy Bicemet his legal requirement to release the list of schools, he made the pointthat many of them have shown "unbelievable growth" in studentachievement that should be models for turning around schools.

The actdefines a school as failing that "has been listed three or more timesduring the then-most recent six years in the lowest six percent of public K-12schools on the state standardized assessment in reading and math."

But thatdefinition allows a school that has shown dramatic improvement in the past yearor two to still be listed as failing.

Bice hasrepeatedly made the point that schools that have been low performing but thatare making improvement should not be on the list, even though the law aswritten requires it.

I would agree, but only if the improvement issignificant.

Of the 78 schools identified statewide as failing, 45 aremiddle schools or junior high schools. And all of them are schools with highpoverty rates for students. That pattern is even more pronounced in MontgomeryCounty, where six of the eight schools to make the list are middle schools.

Which brings me to some observations on the ongoingpublic debate over the Accountability Act:

-- Some public relations advice for Superintendent Bice:You have to follow the law in determining what schools are affected by theAccountability Act, but you and the Department of Education could do a betterjob of drawing a distinction between those schools on the list that are stilltruly failing and those that are showing dramatic improvement.

For instance, in releasing the list of affected schools,the department consistently should label the full list as "AccountabilityAct Schools," not "failing schools." Then this full list shouldbe broken down into two categories -- schools that have a history of failingbut that are showing recent and significant improvement, and schools that arecontinuing to fail.

Drawing such a distinction would not change the legalimpact of the law, but it would mitigate the negative public relations impacton the image of those schools on the list where the hard work of teachers,administrators and students has shown significant improvement in studentachievement.

-- Lots of headlines and public comment on the list offailing schools have focused on the fact that all of the schools have studentswith high rates of poverty and many of them have high percentages of minority students.

Those are significant factors, and they should beincluded in the public discussion. It is true that a high poverty rate  is a hurdle that educators have to overcometo improve student achievement.

But in discussing these factors, public officials have tobe careful that they never are seen as using them as excuses for failure.

The fact is that there are many examples of high-povertyand high-minority schools in Alabama where student achievement is high as well.(Highland Avenue Elementary in Montgomery is one consistent example.)

Jim Williams, executive director of the Public AffairsResearch Council of Alabama, constantly makes this point in discussing studentachievement, saying: "Demographics is not destiny." In other words,all students can learn, and poverty and race should never be allowed to be usedas an excuse for low student achievement.

-- The state Revenue Department's ruling that the taxcredit would not apply to students who are already in private schools mitigatesone of the more objectionable results of the Alabama Accountability Act -- thetransfer of taxpayer money from public education to private schools.

Until that ruling, public education officials were rightto be concerned about the negative impact of the act on the revenues that flowto public schools and colleges.

But as a report this week by Raycom political reporter Max Reiss makes clear, somelegislators are not content to leave well enough alone and plan to try to getthat interpretation overturned.

The public shouldwatch that effort closely to see which legislators are focused on allowingstudents in failing schools to have an alternative, and which ones really justwant to shift taxpayer money from public schools to private ones.

-- One finalpoint: Don't assume that because most high schools avoided being on the failinglist that they are doing well academically. There is no way that so many junior and middle schools are doing poorlyand the high schools that they feed students into are not being impacted. Isuspect that one reason relatively few high schools made the failing list isthat it is based to a degree on the notoriously easy high school graduationexam, which is being phased out in favor of end-of-course tests. And, ofcourse, many of the high schools have such low graduation rates that the worststudents in middle schools may never make it to the high schools.

As the debateover the Accountability Act continues in future months and years, changes in italmost certainly will occur. The public should push their public officials tomake the law more about improving low performing schools, and less about shiftingpublic money to private schools.


Ken Hare was a longtimeAlabama newspaper editorial writer and editorial page editor who now writes aregular column for WSFA's web site. Email him at

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