By MARY SELL and ALEXANDER WILLIS, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – The Alabama Legislature on Wednesday gave final approval to a bill that greatly expands the state-funded private school scholarship program created a decade ago.
Meanwhile, separate bills to modify the state’s charter school law and create education savings accounts for special needs students are pending final votes in the last two days of the session.
If all three bills become law, this will be a significant legislative session for school choice in Alabama, House Education Policy Committee chair Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, told Alabama Daily News Wednesday night.
“If we were able to get the Accountability Act, the charter school bill and (the Students with Unique Needs Education Scholarship Account Program), that would be a great school choice year,” she said.
The SUN program is not the expansive education savings account bill some advocated for this year. That bill to give families $6,900 to use how they see fit for their children’s education is dead.
Instead, Collins said House Bill 334 is a “toe dip” into ESAs that could be built upon in the future and applied to more students. It would allow students with special education needs, students in foster care, students who are homeless and students in military families who were not enrolled in public schools in Alabama the previous year to take state money to private school and non-traditional school settings. The program in its first year would cost the state $3 million and increase in subsequent years, according to a fiscal note.
Collins said in other states that have education savings accounts, most of the students who use them fall into the categories outlined in the SUN bill.
“When you look at who is using ESAs in other states, that is the majority of them,” she said.
Unlike the larger ESA bill that stalled, the SUN bill requires annual testing of the students receiving the public money. The program would initially be capped at 500 students, each receiving about $5,600.
The bill was approved in a Senate committee on Wednesday and awaits a Senate vote.
The charter school bill from Collins, HB363, focuses on the structure of the Alabama Charter School Commission and the rules for creating the public schools. Since the Legislature approved charter schools in 2015, 13 have been created.
Accountability Act expansion goes to governor
The Alabama House on Wednesday approved and sent to Gov. Kay Ivey a bill that could potentially double the private-school scholarship fund under the Alabama Accountability Act.
Senate Bill 263 modifies the 2013 Alabama Accountability Act to both lift the cap on the amount in scholarships awarded per year, which are funded from the state’s Education Trust Fund, and expand the eligibility criteria to receive said scholarship.
Under the existing criteria for the scholarship, a family cannot make more than 185% the poverty level, which for a family of four would amount to $55,000 a year. The bill would increase that criteria to include families making up to 250% of the poverty level, or $75,000 for a family of four.
The bill would also lift the annual cap on the scholarships from $30 million to $60 million, increasing the cap by $10 million a year, provided at least 90% of the cap is claimed the preceding year.
The bill also removes from the law the controversial term “failing schools” and would instead create “priority schools” that receive a “D” or an “F” on the state’s school report card. Students in those schools would be eligible for scholarships if they meet an income requirement.