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Alabama lawmakers offer range of proposals on school choice ahead of session

School choice will likely be a significant topic in the upcoming session of the Alabama Legislature, with proposals ranging from a massive expansion of what state tax dollars can fund to a more measured bolstering of the already available options.

“I’m an advocate for school choice, I’m also an advocate for accountability and doing things the right way,” Alabama State Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, said recently on Alabama Daily News’ podcast, In the Weeds.

Chairwoman of the House’s Education Policy Committee, Collins said she’s heard about draft legislation to make expansions in school choice, but hasn’t been consulted about it. She told ADN her focus will be improving and expanding the choice options Alabama already has, including some charter schools and the Alabama Accountability Act, the 2013 law that allows for tax credit-funded scholarships for families leaving the state’s lowest-performing public schools. There also is a separate $30 million-per-year scholarship fund for private school tuition.

“I would like to see us maybe continue to push ahead with funding issues that have been needed for charters or for the scholarships and grow the choices that we have there, but also really fund and be smart with our funding to make sure that we are implementing the Literacy and the Numeracy acts all over to make sure that we’re growing that, that we continue to fund our First Class Pre-K because we know it makes a difference, we saw great gains in our literacy with our students, and that needs to continue,” Collins said. “It’s just a continuous push forward.” 

Collins sponsored the 2015 legislation to allow charter schools in Alabama. Since then she’s made several attempts to make changes to it, noting that progress is slow.

“I’ve crashed and burned on the House floor,” she said.

Regardless, Collins said she intends to push for changes this session to allow for local school funding to follow students to charter schools, as well as changes regarding how members of the state Charter School Commission are appointed.

“I think the local funding is critical,” Collins said. 

Collins also said the existing Charter School and Accountability Act laws allow public school districts to make major changes to exiting struggling schools. They could become conversion charter schools with the same flexibility as newly created charter schools. The Accountability Act also has a section that allows districts to ask the state department of education for more flexibility under an “innovation plan.”

“No one is using, in the (school) systems, those two opportunities that we’ve had all along,” Collins said. “So, I’m hoping that each of the systems will look at where our problems are, what we need to do and what are some viable options that we already have on the books.” 

Alabama State Sen. Donnie Chesteen, the new chairman of the Senate Education Policy Committee, said he thinks school choice will be a priority this session, especially as Gov. Kay Ivey has said it’s important to her. It will also likely be a multi-year effort for lawmakers, with some steps forward this year.

“I’m looking forward to digging in and tackling these issues in a comprehensive way,” Chesteen, R-Geneva,  told ADN. “We need to be careful as we work through this and make sure there are no unintended  consequences.”

He said he is working on legislation that would change how the Alabama Accountability Act can be used.

Meanwhile, he said leaders need to come together on some definitions of what “school choice” means.

“If you ask five people, you’re going to get five different answers,” Chesteen said.

State Sen. Larry Stutts, R-Tuscumbia, and State Rep. Ernie Yarbrough, R-Trinity, are expected to file an expansive choice bill. On Thursday, Stutts said tweaks are still being made to the bill before it’s filed for the legislative session that starts in March. He said it will create education savings accounts that would allow families to use state funding for non-public education, including private and home schools. If they had money left over when K-12 was complete, it could be used for higher education expenses until the student is age 21.

“It’s all right there in the name, Parental Rights in Children’s Education Act,” Stutts said. “The whole bill is about parental freedom. You can sum it up in two things: It’s up to the parents to make the decision on where their children go to school, and then the state money follows the child.”

That’s nearly $6,000 a year. The bill and who it would apply to would be phased in over about three years.

It would also allow existing traditional public schools to create policies, including “reasonable fees” for admitting students from outside their districts. Public schools could also opt not to participate, Stutts said.

He also said his bill won’t put any new regulations on the non-public education providers. 

Last year, when then State Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, proposed a massive school choice bill, home school groups opted out when a requirement for annual testing of their students was added.

“It’s all about choice and freedom. Period,” Stutts said. The bill was drafted with the help of the conservative group, Eagle Forum.

Collins said public money should follow students, but she also favors accountability measures.

“We need to make sure that children are having gains year-to-year with their education and that they’re doing well and they’re being monitored … it might not be the exact same test the state is using, but it (should) be nationally recognized and have comparable data,”  Stutts said. “We’re responsible for taxpayers’ money and making sure the money is helping us achieve student gains is, to me, part of the accountability that we’re responsible for.”

State Rep. Danny Garrett, R-Trussville, said he expects choice discussions in the State House about what is and isn’t working in other states. 

“My understanding is that school choice is all about improving education and also giving parents a choice in determining what’s best for the education of their child,” said Garrett, chair of the House Education Budget Committee. “I think the end goal of both of those is to have the child better prepared and have a better education. So, I think we need to have that discussion, we need to see what works in Alabama. We’ve got to make sure what we’re doing at the end of the day is making lives better for our children.” 

Separate from choice, budgeting will be a major focus of lawmakers. The Education Trust Fund has an astonishing surplus of about $2.7 billion. Some leaders have suggested sending some of the one-time money back to Alabamians in the form of tax rebates.

Collins isn’t convinced. The surplus money should be used to set people up for a better future, she said on the ADN podcast.

“I would like to see some of that money continue to support the things that we know and we have data and we have seen are making a difference,” she said. “We know that quality after-school care is lifting students that are behind. We know that, so I think we need to invest in that. We know summer programming — quality programs for students to catch back up — we’ve seen it work in the Literacy Act, I know with numeracy it’s going to make a difference. We know having an additional auxiliary teacher in a classroom can make a huge difference on student learning. We need to grow those things and fund those things that are making a difference.”

The Legislative session starts March 7.

“It’s going to be an interesting education policy year, for sure, and I look forward to it,” Collins said.

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