Are Accountability Act scholarships working?

VIDEO: Scholarship study

BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - The scholarship program created by the Alabama Accountability Act that uses tax-deductible donations to fund scholarships to send qualified students from state-labeled “failing” schools to private schools isn’t making a notable difference in those student’s academic achievement on average, according to a new state-funded study.

The Accountability Act’s scholarship program started in 2013. It gives up to $30 million a year in tax credits to donors who fund Scholarship Granting Organizations or SGOs. These SGOs are required to hand out scholarships to applicants who meet income requirements, meaning most are in or near the poverty line, and give priority to students who are zoned to attend schools labeled by the state as “failing.”

“Before I came to Cornerstone I didn’t really care about a lot and once I came I cared about it a lot more,” says Gloria Thomas, a 9th grader at Cornerstone School in east Birmingham and a scholarship recipient..

“When I came to Cornerstone it challenged me to strive to push harder even through my 10-12th grade year,” says Destiny Thomas, a 12th grader at Cornerstone and Gloria’s older sister. “Now they prepare for me to strive for college.”

“I prayed,” says Joyce Lee, Gloria and Destiny’s mom. “I said God I really want a change because I saw a lot of things going on and i really wanted them not only in an environment that brings good character but also an excellent environment to build them up.”

Granting these scholarships pulls tax dollars out of public schools because it takes students out of those schools and each student represents thousands in state funding each year. It also takes tax dollars away from the state budget when donors deduct these from their taxes.

As of June of this year, the seven active SGOs have collected almost $58 million in donations since the program began. So what are we getting for those donations? A new audit says not much.

“You look across the seven tests we were able to analyze, the most common pattern is they’re falling below those national norms,” says Dr. Joan Barth, who authored the latest scholarship program audit mandated by the Accountability Act.

Dr. Joan Barth authored the scholarship program audit.
Dr. Joan Barth authored the scholarship program audit. ((Source: WBRC))

Dr. Barth looked at test scores from standardized tests taken by scholarship students now in private schools and public school students in Alabama who come from similar demographic backgrounds.

“Generally they’re doing about the same, the most common finding is no difference,” Dr. Barth reports.

In fact, the study found some cases where groups of scholarship students did better than similar students in public schools, but other grades where they did worse.

“It doesn’t mean some kids aren’t improving and for some kids, the school’s been a positive change for their academic achievement, it’s just that that’s offset by another group of students for whom the change has resulted in a decline in their performance,” Dr. Barth found.

Do these scholarships help these students improve themselves academically over time? The study found, at least for standardized testing, no.

“We looked at this every way we could think of to examine that question, and again we just didn’t see that, on average, that’s what we were seeing,” reports Dr. Barth. “The longer you were in the program you can’t say that your scores were going up.”

Asked if “We are depriving public resources from public schools, and it appears at the moment that it’s not making any difference for the kids we’re doing this for?” Barth replied “That could be a conclusion you could draw from this.”

“That’s not true for my family,” Lee contends. “It actually has a big impact, a great big impact because I’ve seen so much happen. We can look around in our neighborhood and see what’s going on.”

These scholarship recipients say evaluating this program only on grades or tests misses the bigger impact.

“I’m fixing to go to college,” Destiny says. “I feel as if, If I didn’t come to Cornerstone I wouldn’t want to strive to go to college.”

“I’m bad when it comes to ACT scores, but I’m a good student,” says Benee Fincher, another Cornerstone 12th grader and scholarship recipient. “I work hard, I push through and everything, I’m very involved with the school, I do sports, i’m all over the place. Me putting all this in here, working hard, and then come through with that test and it don’t look like what I put into, it just, I feel as if I get more help and it shows someone else that it’s not my test score that shows who i am. All of this is who I am, not just this test.”

Benee Fincher is a 12th grader at Cornerstone School.
Benee Fincher is a 12th grader at Cornerstone School. ((Source: WBRC))

Dr. Barth admits standardized tests aren’t a perfect evaluation method, but it’s the best they’ve got to try to make an apples to apples comparison.

Here is the entire report for you to read if you’d like.

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