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Amended ESA bill to get first vote Thursday

The legislation authorizing more public funding of private school options is expected to get its first vote in the Alabama Legislature on Thursday.

The bill to allow up to $7,000 per year through tax credits to fund a student’s private school education and other choice options is a priority for Republicans in the Legislature and Gov. Kay Ivey.

Public school families could also use the credits to pay fees for attending out-of-district public schools. House Bill 129 allows for $2,000 in tax credits for homeschool students, up to $4,000 per family. Lawmakers would allocate at least $100 million each year to fund the education options through tax credits.

“We’re allowing a parent to say, this is what’s best for my child,” bill sponsor Rep. Danny Garrett, R-Trussville, said Wednesday during a meeting of the House education budget committee he chairs. The committee is expected to vote on the bill Thursday morning.

The committee on Wednesday adopted a substitute version of the bill that included changes discussed last week by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, who is sponsoring the bill in the Senate. A copy of the new bill was not yet available on the Legislature’s website Wednesday afternoon.

Alabama Daily News obtained a physical copy which can be viewed here: HB 129 Substitute.

Several of the changes were requests of public education groups. The Alabama Education Association and the state school board and superintendents’ associations were all a rare “neutral” on the bill Wednesday, citing the work lawmakers and Ivey’s team have done with them on the proposal. Their remaining concerns center around protecting the Education Trust Fund that supports public education.

“Our trust with the current leadership in Montgomery is immense … our concern is 20 years down the road,” said Ryan Hollingsworth, executive director of School Superintendents of Alabama.

The new House Bill 129 would:

Cap at $500 million at any time the amount of money in the education savings accounts fund. If it reaches that amount, funds above that could be appropriated elsewhere.

Require that before lawmakers allocate more than $100 million per year to the fund, the Alabama Department of Revenue certifies that at least 90% of the fund has been expended.

Require participating schools to be located in Alabama.

Require participating schools to share student test scores directly with parents each year and report school-level assessment information to ADOR.

Give military families priority to use the tax credits in the first two years of implementation if they are zoned for public schools labeled “D” or “F” under the state’s school grading system. This does not change the priority of up to 500 special needs students to get first access to the ESAs.

The substitute does not change the income limit for participating families in the first two years of the program. They must be at or below 300% of the federal poverty level. That’s about $90,000 for a family of four.

Addressing another recent concern about the legislation, Garrett said if approved, the tax credit program would not affect whether another penny comes off the state’s sales tax on groceries. One percentage point came off the tax in September and another will drop when growth estimates of total ETF revenue are 3.5% or more above the previous year. But unlike other tax credits, the ESA tax credits will be funded through a yearly appropriation from the ETF, not coming off the top of its revenue and won’t affect growth.

Some members of the public and the committee on Wednesday asked how the legislation will help students in counties that don’t have any or many private schools.

Garrett said the legislation could be “a funding vehicle to create a choice.”

Some on the committee, including Rep. Alan Baker, R-Brewton, questioned the mechanics of that and what happens if new private schools don’t end up meeting accreditation requirements in the legislation.

“Why would we want to fund that?” he said.

The committee meets at 8:30 a.m. Thursday to vote on the bill. From there, it goes to the House for a floor vote and then the Senate.

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