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Excellence in Education: In defense of the Alabama Accountability Act

The Anniston Star’s Sept. 13 editorial (“Average results again about Alabama education”) portrayed the Alabama Accountability Act as “middling legislation that’s produced tepid results” based on a University of Alabama report.

But that drive-by analysis is akin to criticizing an apple pie that’s been in the oven for a few minutes. A thoughtful look shows that while the program is still in its early stages, the initial results are promising for families that have not had access to educational opportunities in the past.

The AAA scholarship began in 2013 with the goal of empowering low-income families with the same choices that wealthier Alabamans already have — the option to find the best educational fit beyond their zoned neighborhood school.

If participation is a sign of success, then the program has met that goal. More than 4,000 students are participating in the program and thousands more have applied and are waiting for their opportunity.

These students come from low-income families; one-third are zoned for a “failing” school. In addition, 62 percent of participating students are black, 20 percent are white and 11 percent are Hispanic.

It is safe to predict that most of those families don’t feel this is “middling legislation.” In fact, it is life-altering to provide these options for families that would otherwise be left behind.

The editorial correctly writes that “Students on AAA scholarships frequently did better academically than low-income students in public schools, but they didn’t perform better than the state overall.”

The fact that these students are performing better than others who share the same demographics should be celebrated. No one expects students who are starting at a disadvantage to immediately meet the performance of all students. This incremental, yet concrete, improvement should be applauded.

It is true that not enough time has passed to identify concrete performance gains. The study looks at the first three years of the program, and most students had only participated for one or two years at the time of the research.

Of the small sample of students compared to overall students in the state, we can see some bright spots and some negative spots. But these rely on a single-year snapshot of student performance. These results can be impacted by a lot of factors — prior performance of the student, parent involvement, learning disabilities, school safety issues and others we have little information on.

This gets to the editorial’s conclusion that asserts “the AAA hasn’t demonstrably addressed the overwhelming need to improve the quality of public education in Alabama — not just for low-income students, but for all of them.”

Regardless of the tool, it will take more than a few years to dramatically improve education outcomes for all students.

But the fact is simple: What we’ve been doing is not good enough. In Alabama and around the country, there is bipartisan urgency to make sure we are preparing our children for success in school and in life. And we know that success is often shaped by much more than a single year’s test score. Are these students excited to learn, do they feel safer, have they found a peer group or mentor that pushes them to be better than average? These factors, which cannot be measured by officials hundreds of miles away, are often the reason parents are selecting an alternative learning environment.

The AAA program should be allowed to continue and grow. The initial results demonstrate why, and the needs of Alabama’s students demand more.

Adam Peshek is Managing Director of Opportunity Policy at ExcelinEd, where he provides strategic support to state leaders interested in developing, adopting, and implementing policies that increase educational options for children. He has provided expert testimony in more than a dozen state legislatures and is a frequent commentator on ESAs, school choice, and education policy across the country. He is also the is the co-editor of the first published volume on ESAs, Education Savings Accounts: The New Frontier in School Choice

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