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Last Updated Wednesday, November 26, 2014
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You have to tip your hat to Bob Riley’s Alabama Opportunity Scholarship Fund and the great
job they do with public relations. Hardly a day goes by without someone trying to convince us the
best way to help kids in struggling schools is to take resources from them and give tax breaks to
A few days ago Cameron Smith, an AL.com columnist told us that Riley’s AOSF has awarded
2,800 scholarships and is the greatest thing since sliced bread.
Next came a column in the Birmingham News from the executive director of Riley’s group. She
said they have awarded 2,700 scholarships through the Alabama Accountability Act and that too
many folks opposed to it twist facts.
Of course, she had to take a political shot by saying the Alabama Education
opposed. However, she failed to mention so was the state school superintendent, state board of
education, school board association and superintendents association.
(For the record I am not, nor have I even been, a member of AEA. I am retired
and do not get a
salary from anyone. I have driven more than 10,000 miles this year visiting schools and studying
education. I buy my own gas.)
She implied that the $25 million taken from the state education trust fund for
business tax breaks
was no big deal and no one should squabble about sending this money to private schools.
She needs to go to Winston County and tell this to Amy Hiller, the principal at
Elementary. I will never forget the day I asked Amy if I were to give her a blank check, what she
would spend it on.
“I would run the heat and air-conditioning when it should be run,” she quickly replied. Her
school system was scrimping every dollar it could and not having a cool or warm school was one
of the consequences. But then I suppose the folks at AOSF probably don’t worry much about their
You see, last year Riley’s SGO raised $17,825,594 from 25 donors. They keep five percent to
run their program. That’s $891,279.70 to pay for power bills, salaries, slick videos, direct mail,
robo calls, travel, food, lodging, etc.
When we pay our state income tax, it goes straight to the education trust
fund--unless you are a
contributor to an SGO. Then you send the money to them and in return, you get a dollar for dollar
tax break on your state taxes.
This means that every penny of the $891,279.70 to run AOSF is a penny straight
out of the ETF.
The fact that someone professing to be concerned about education would
trivialize the value of
$25 million when there are elementary classes with 30+ students, when neither libraries or
technology have not been funded in six years and when rural school systems are struggling to run
buses is very telling.
It is also telling that someone applauds taking money from 733,000 public school
send only 2,700 of them to private schools
Now let’s look at some “non-twisted” facts:
In 2013, the Riley SGO raised $17.8 million and did not award a single
scholarship according to
their annual report filed with the revenue department.
The AAA was passed without input from Alabama educators. Legislative leadership
they kept professional educators in the dark. Would the legislature pass a law impacting business
and not consult with the Business Council of Alabama or Manufacture Alabama?
AAA has been ruled unconstitutional by a Montgomery circuit court. Thirty
have filed a “friend of the court” brief supporting this decision. Only eight of them have failing
According to superintendents in 20 counties with 37 failing schools, only 40
received scholarships because of AAA.
Which begs the question? Who are these kids getting scholarships? Local school
find them, the state department of education can’t find them, the revenue department can’t find
Do we need an Amber Alert? Or will AOSF tell us who they are and what failing
came from? Until they do, it’s all just more PR.
Larry Lee led the study, Lessons Learned from Rural Schools and is a long-time
public education and frequently writes about education issues. Email him at