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‘I really think it’s coming;’ Alabama lawmakers say school choice expansion on the horizon

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Alabama lawmakers this year expanded existing school choice options, including the state’s alternative for those in low-performing schools.

But an expansive bill to let all families use state money outside of public school settings never got a floor vote. Lessons were learned, supporters say, and they’ll be back next year. 

“I’m not against public schools, but I’m tired of being in last place, and I want to see substantial improvement,” said Sen. Larry Stutts, R-Tuscumbia. “The changes we made in the Alabama Accountability Act, yea, it raised the cap a little bit, but that’s not enough to make a difference statewide in overall performance.”

Stutts and Rep. Ernie Yarbrough, R-Trinity, sponsored the Parental Rights in Children’s Education Act, that would allow students to receive up to $6,900 a year, deposited into an education savings account, for a variety of private and homeschool education expenses. 

The bill didn’t require any annual testing of students to measure academic gains. That lack of accountability bothered many legislative leaders. Stutts said he’s willing to compromise next year when the bill is introduced again.

“By accountability, they mean testing, and I’m not opposed to that, but I don’t want testing to drive the curriculum,” Stutts told ADN.

Stutts said that school choice would be a major issue in the 2024 presidential race, drawing more attention to the topic. He also said as other states adopt their own educational savings accounts programs, with Iowa currently rolling out its own educational savings account program, lawmakers in Alabama would see the benefits first hand.

The American Federation for Children, a national school choice advocacy group, told ADN that while they fully supported the implementation of universal school choice in Alabama, including the PRICE Act, they shifted their efforts away from Stutts’ bill “when it became clear that the votes weren’t there.”

“AFC was proud to fight alongside our coalition partners to expand school choice in Alabama during this legislative session,” said Ryan Cantrell, director of government affairs for AFC. “When it became clear that the votes weren’t there for the PRICE Act or a similar program with universal eligibility, we shifted our focus to expanding both the eligibility and funding for the Accountability Act, which is already serving thousands of students.”

School choice proposals in 2023

Lawmakers this year did approve Senate Bill 263 and House Bill 363, which would modify the Alabama Accountability Act by expanding both the spending cap and eligibility of the state’s public school alternative scholarship program, and broaden enrollment for public charter schools, respectively.

There were also proposals for education savings accounts targeted to smaller groups of students. Proponents said those would be a better introduction to ESAs in Alabama, rather than the larger PRICE Act, which as originally written would have diverted more than $500 million per year from public schools, according to a fiscal note.

Reps. Danny Garrett, R-Trussville, and Terri Collins, R-Decatur, sponsored House Bill 442, which would have allotted up to $45 million during its first year to award scholarships to eligible students of up to $6,900, the current average state spending per student, which could be used for public school alternatives such as private school or homeschooling.

Both representatives also sponsored the SUN Act, which would have allowed eligible at-risk students to use state money toward private schools and other public school alternatives.

Garrett said that he believed school choice proposals similar to his own and Stutts’ PRICE Act could “gain momentum” next session, and that he felt that was the direction the state was headed.

“I think a lot of it will gain momentum depending on how much progress we make in the public schools,” Garrett said. “I think that’s kind of where we’re headed; it was very different than any of the school choice legislation passed in other states, (but) I think that approach is what you’re going to see in the future.”

Collins said she also hoped for “more universal-type school choice (bills), or at least education savings accounts” next year, and that at the very least, she would return with her two bills – HB422 and the SUN Act – next session. On the PRICE Act, Collins told ADN Thursday that she still held some reservations, and that she would have to watch how it develops next year before committing her support.

Rep. Terri Collins.

“I worked with the sponsors on the PRICE Act, they made a lot of the changes that I asked for and I appreciated that, (but) they never did add the accountability (measures), which is very important to people,” Collins said.

“There were a few other things that needed some tweaking, but we’ll just have to see. The PRICE Act was getting closer, but there was still a lot of pushback in both houses, so we’ll just have to see what changes and what compromises they’re willing to make here in the off-season.”

‘I really think it’s coming to Alabama’

A number of lawmakers said they too would support more universal school choice proposals next year, such as Rep. Bill Lamb, R-Tuscaloosa, who told ADN he hoped for and anticipated a bill similar to the PRICE Act to return next session.

“I was pleased with the legislation that did pass, I think that’s all good legislation, (but) I would like to see a more robust school choice bill passed, and I think that will be brought back before again in the next session,” Lamb said.

He said he would like to see changes from what Stutts proposed in his bill, changes like adding more accountability mechanisms for education institutions that receive state dollars, and a potentially different amount than the PRICE Act’s $6,900 per student.

Rep. Matt Simpson, R-Daphne, also saw school choice proposals like the PRICE Act being the future of the state, telling ADN “I really think it’s coming to Alabama.” But much like Lamb, Simpson had some reservations as to the details.

“I think there are still details to work out, but the goal is to get the best bill possible in order to give parents the options to choose the best education possible for their children,” Simpson said.

Rep. Mike Shaw, R-Hoover, while coming short of endorsing proposals at the scope of the PRICE Act, said he believed continued support of Alabama’s current approach to school choice, which consists of some public charter schools and the Accountability Act, are best.

“Now, certainly, we have places in the state where the systems are failing, and we’ve got to do something, we’ve got to provide more options and do something for those kids,” Shaw told ADN Wednesday.

“But I’m very leery or skeptical of one-size-fits all solutions that could hurt the systems that are performing well. So to that end, I think the Alabama Accountability Act and the charter schools approaches, I think those strike the right balance with that,” he said.

Rep. Ontario Tillman, D-Bessemer, said he would support any proposals given that it can be demonstrated to produce the best educational outcomes for Alabama students.

“As a former public school teacher, I want every child to have a quality education; public school, private school or a charter school, if it’s working and the children are being successful, I’m all for it,” Tillman said.  “I can accept school choice if it’s working, but I would never want to leave public schools behind; I’m an advocate for public schools, and I think we need to do everything within our power to improve public schools.”

One lawmaker who was supportive of public charter schools, but strongly opposed to proposals like the PRICE Act, was Rep. Curtis Travis, D-Tuscaloosa, who argued that the state of the Alabama education system — which routinely ranks as among the lowest performing in the country — was largely due to underfunding. School choice proposals that divert significant funding away from public education, he argued, would simply exacerbate that.

“I just have a problem with taking public dollars and directing them to private institutions. We’ve just got to be very mindful of that. I supported the options of expanding charter schools with the public school concept where charter schools are actually managed by the local school authority, which I think is good from the standpoint that they keep some supervision into what’s going on in charter schools.”

The conservative advocacy group Eagle Forum supported the PRICE Act this year and will again next year, leader Becky Gerritson said.

Becky Gerritson, executive director for Alabama Eagle Forum, speaks in support of the PRICE Act.
Becky Gerritson (right), executive director for Alabama Eagle Forum, speaks in support of the PRICE Act.

“We were concentrating on the PRICE Act, (and) I think that that is the way the nation is going; they’re going to educational savings accounts where the money follows the child,” she said.

“I think this bill will come back next year. Parents are clamoring for school choice, and legislators can’t ignore it, it has to happen.”




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