“If they want to leave, let them leave,” said Hutchings, a member of the Anniston City Board of Education. “But you’re not going to see an exodus.”
Hutchings and other school board members are still trying to figure what effect the Alabama Accountability Act, signed into law earlier this month, will have on the city’s school system.
The act creates a tax credit for parents in “failing” school systems, kicking in about $3,500 per year toward the cost of private school tuition. The law also gives students in failing systems the chance to opt out of their zoned school for a non-failing public school, either in their district or out of district, with the possibility of a tax credit to defray the cost.
The act comes at a crucial moment for Anniston’s school system, as board members have been contemplating a consolidation of the city’s seven schools. The decline in the city’s population has the system at about 2,200 students, leaving some of the city’s schools with fewer than 300 students.
If one or more of Anniston’s schools were listed as failing, the school population could drop even more. That could play a role in the debate about which schools are closed or merged, and which stay open.
But there’s still no official list of failing schools — and that makes the future hard to predict. School board President Donna Ross said that the Accountability Act hasn’t affected consolidation talks yet.
“There’s a lot that we still don’t know,” she said.
Waiting for list
The Accountability Act offers four different criteria for failing schools, one of which is a listing as a persistently low-performing school on the state’s most recent application for School Improvement Grants. Five Model City schools — Anniston High, Anniston Middle, Cobb Elementary, Constantine Elementary and Tenth Street Elementary — are listed in that application.
Another list of potentially failing schools, circulated by Senate Republicans after the act was passed, also included Randolph Park Elementary.
Joan Frazier, superintendent of Anniston City Schools, is quick to point out that the Alabama Department of Education has yet to release the official list of “failing” schools. Speculation about the failing-schools list hasn’t been helpful, she said.
“I’ve already heard from parents who want to know why their school is listed as failing when it’s made AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) every year their child’s been there,” Frazier said.
It’s a touchy subject because Anniston’s elementary schools are the most likely to be consolidated. Anniston has one middle school and one high school, but five elementary schools.
Frazier said she wouldn’t speculate on whether the upcoming failing schools list would drive the school board’s decision on which elementary school should be closed.
Still, Frazier acknowledged that she’s beginning to plan for the possibility that Anniston High will be on the failing list.
“What happens to the kids who don’t transfer? she said. “How is this positive? How does it build trust, how does it solidify the community in a positive way?”
Frazier said she doesn’t know how many of the school’s 550 students would opt to go to other schools if Anniston High were listed as failing. No matter how many choose to leave, she said, the option would make planning more difficult.
“This is the most complex issue I’ve dealt with in my career,” said Frazier.
She said uncertainty about the number of students, in the event the tax credit applied here, would make personnel planning harder.
Eric Mackey, director of the School Superintendents of Alabama, said a major drop in the number of students could lead to a school that’s less efficient, in terms of money spent per pupil.
“You can use an empty classroom for storage, but you still have to heat and cool it, and maintain the roof over it,” he noted.
Still, even a “failing” Anniston school might surprise everyone by hanging on to most of its students.
In other states where school choice programs have been tried, “not as many parents participate as you might think,” said Sally Howell, director of the Alabama Association of School Boards.
“Not every child in a failing school is not doing well,” she said. “If your child is performing well, you may not be dissatisfied.” In some systems, she said, struggling students are the most likely to leave.
Anniston schools might look very different depending on whether one is observing from the inside or the outside. A 2011 poll by the nonprofit GETT Moving East Alabama found a majority of the city’s residents rated schools “fair” or “poor.” But older, white residents were the harshest judges of the school system. Thirty-four percent of African Americans rated schools “excellent” and 14 percent said they were “good.”
The school system’s student body is 94 percent black.
Hutchings, who grew up in the area’s black schools during segregation, said it’s impossible to ignore the racial history leading up to the Accountability Act.
Anniston schools are suffering, he said, because the system is underfunded, while serving a large number of kids in poverty. The state never really tried to address those problems, he said.
Like segregation-era schools, he said, the city’s schools aren’t as well equipped as the area’s majority-white schools, but they do understand the needs of black students in poverty.
“Some of these kids have problems at home,” he said. “If they get into trouble at school, these other schools are going to kick them out. And then where are they going to go?”
Mackey, of the school superintendents’ association, said it’s true that in most places with school-choice programs, less than half a percent of students in “failing” schools make the move to private schools.
“For kids in poverty, it’s not just a matter of education,” he said. “They get a good breakfast and lunch. The school nurse may be their only source of health care.”
Out-of-district public school transfers may not be any easier for parents. Frazier said they may well be illegal under the court order the system has been under since the end of segregation — an order that, according to Frazier, requires students to attend no public school other than the one they’re zoned for.
And there may be logistical problems for parents who can make the switch to another public high school.
“If Piedmont would accept you, you’d have to get to Piedmont,” said Howell.
While Mackey and Howell project few student transfers under the Accountability Act, Mackey’s organization has projected that the tax credits would cost the state between $35 million and $125 million.
Much of that money, he said, would go to tax credits for parents of children already in private school.
While a “failing” designation for an elementary school might shape the debate about closing or merging schools, Anniston High is in no danger of closing, experts say.
Even if the high school were listed as failing — and if students left en masse — closing the city’s only public high school isn’t really an option.
“Under state law, they have to operate a school for all grades K through 12,” Mackey said.
Some local officials saw hope in the other major tenet of the Accountability Act — the school flexibility wording that allows schools to ask for waivers of state rules for educational purposes.
“Schools should be in ownership of their ideas, and they should have the liberty to find approaches that are appropriate for the community,” school board member C.K. Huguley said.
Hutchings has long maintained that the school system needs to give students an education they can more easily take into the workforce. He said he’d like to partner with local hospitals to create programs to prepare students for jobs in the medical field.
“We can make schools that everybody in the county wants to go to,” he said.
But it’s still not clear what powers schools will have, under the new bill, to implement programs of that sort. Frazier said superintendents are still trying to interpret the meaning of the school flexibility wording in the bill.
“There are a lot of questions we still have to answer,” she said.
Capitol & statewide correspondent: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.