Former Alabama Governor Bob Riley’s Non-Profit Comes Under Fire

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Education Matters –
By Larry Lee

It looked innocent enough. Just another of the dozens of emails I get every day. Then I looked again and immediately did a double take.

Governor_Bob_Riley

Former Alabama Governor Bob Riley

It was an email of an email. The first was from the Alabama State Director of the Alabama Federation for Children. He was making sure folks saw the second email from the Director of Communications of the Alabama Opportunity scholarship Fund.

Members of the Legislature had their orientation Dec. 9-11 in Montgomery. The two emails were to make sure everyone knew that Bob Riley’s scholarship granting organization would be in room 418 of the statehouse during these sessions to tell everyone what a wonderful job they are doing as a result of the Alabama Accountability Act passed in 2013.

Say what?

Since when have non-profits who depend on the legislature for funding been allowed to set up shop like this in the statehouse?

Last year this scholarship granting organization (SGO), started by Bob Riley, raised $17,825,594 from 25 donors. They keep five percent to run their program. That amounted to $891,279.70. The legislature determines how the program works.

I asked a friend who works for another education non-profit about this arrangement. “I have NEVER been allowed to use a room in the statehouse for anything that even hints at being a political activity,” I was told.

The Riley SGO is only one of nine in the state. I wonder if the other eight were given the same opportunity to come smooze with legislators. Since the supermajority now in charge is big on transparency, I’m sure they were.

And when you start connecting the dots, all of this gets even more interesting. Take the Alabama Federation for Children, an affiliate of the American Federation for Children, for instance. This past election cycle they raised $350,000 to spend on campaigns for state senate, state house and state school board.

All of this money came from just three people — a billionaire in Arkansas and millionaires in Michigan and California. Obviously they’ve heard about our “Alabama values” and wanted to invest in them.

It is also worth noting that the vice-chairman of American Federation for Children, John Kirtley, serves on the Riley SGO board. He also heads Florida’s largest SGO, chairs the Florida School Choice Fund and is on the board of the Florida Charter School Alliance.
The invite from the Riley folks said they wanted to provide a short presentation on how successful they have been in awarding scholarships.

I did not see the presentation but I’m sure they talked about the 2,800 scholarships they claim to have distributed. I say “claimed” because no one has seen a list of who has received a scholarship, what school they came from and what school they are now attending.

Of course, the purpose of the accountability act was to help “failing” public schools and their students. However, as several media reports have pointed out lately, this does not seem to be the case as students from non-failing public schools and those already enrolled in private schools are often scholarship recipients.

Governor Bentley has expressed his concern about this and has said that he opposes scholarships going to students not zoned for failing schools.

“I was told originally that this would be done for children only in failing schools across the state,” said the governor.

And where did the money for all these scholarships come from? Essentially from the 733,000 kids in Alabama’s public schools. Here’s how.

Each donor to an SGO gets to claim a dollar for dollar credit on their state income tax liability. Had these dollars gone to the state, they would have been put into the education trust fund to support public schools. So when the legislature OK’ed that SGOs could raise $25 million, they OK’ed a $25 million hole in the ETF.

Which also means that the nearly $900,000 spent by the Riley SGO to market their scholarships (including the coffee served in statehouse room 418) is money taken from school kids.

But then when there are millionaires to court and legislators to sweet talk, who wants to think about kids going to school?

Larry Lee led the study, Lessons Learned from Rural Schools, and is a long-time advocate for public education and frequently writes about education issues.

© 2014, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.

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