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Marsh bringing amendment to school choice bill, not willing to ‘gut’ it

By MARY SELL and MADDISON BOOTH, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Sen. Del Marsh on Tuesday said he’s working on an amendment to his expansive school choice bill at the request of the state superintendent but isn’t open to any changes that will “gut” the bill.

Senate Bill 140, which would allow state funding to follow students to private schools and homeschools, is expected to get its first committee vote this morning. It was filed Tuesday afternoon.

“I talked with (State Superintendent Eric) Mackey (Monday) night,” Marsh, R-Anniston, told Alabama Daily News. “He mentioned something about testing and I’m working on an amendment to put that in the bill.”

Marsh said Mackey is the only educator to come to him about an amendment to the 26-page bill. Some legislators have asked about potential changes as well. 

“This is a legislative process,” Marsh said. “I’m willing to listen to people, but I’m not going to do something that’s going to gut the bill.”

Mackey on Tuesday said he and the department of education weren’t consulted on the bill. But he met with Marsh earlier in the week to ask for multiple changes to it, including an annual performance testing requirement for students outside of public schools.

“In general, my biggest concerns are some lack of transparency and accountability in the flow of the funds,” Mackey told Alabama Daily News.

He said Alabama has among the most lax homeschool regulations in the country. He said many parents do an excellent job educating their children. 

“But there may be people out there who are not really teaching anything to children and we don’t have any way of knowing that,” he said.

“…If we include homeschool (in this bill), then we set up a mechanism so we at least have a registry of who those students are, what curriculum they are using — not choosing the curriculum for them, but a registry of what curriculum they’re using — and annual testing of homeschool students.

“… If they’re going to be getting over $5,000 per child in state funds, the state should at least have that information.”

Secondly, Mackey said private schools receiving state funds should be accredited and meet some minimum standards. And there should be an annual student assessment “so we know where students are and how they’re progressing.”

He’d also like a requirement that participating schools accept children with special needs.

“If schools are taking state dollars, I don’t think they should be able to pick and choose who they accept,” he said.

The per-child annual state funding is about $5,400 per student, Mackey said. A higher dollar amount cited previously included local funding. This bill does not impact local funding.

The bill that Marsh called “the mother of all school choice bills” is in the Senate Education Policy Committee. A public hearing has been requested. The committee is chaired by Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence. Melson is a co-sponsor on the bill, as is Sen. Jim McClendon, R-Springville, Sen. Gerald Allen, R-Tuscaloosa, Sen. Larry Stutts, R-Tuscumbia, Sen. Tom Whatley, R-Auburn, Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Range, and Sen. Will Barfoot, R-Pike Road.

Rep. Charlotte Meadows, R-Montgomery, is expected to file a companion bill in the House this week. On Tuesday, she was gathering co-sponsors.

Supporters of the bill cite Alabama’s poor performance on several national rankings and say it’s time for parents to have more options for their children’s educations.

Marsh and Meadows have both said the COVID-19 pandemic that shut schools and created a patchwork of system rules have pushed some out of the public school system, forcing them into a home-school situation.

“COVID has added complexity to everything we do, from transporting kids to feeding them to teaching them to playing sports…” Mackey said. “But this is a moment in time the whole world is having to deal with. We can’t make major policy shifts based on COVID.” 

Mackey also defended steps for educational improvement taken since he became state superintendent four years ago. 

He said the department and board are “dug in for the long haul to make systemic changes that will pay dividends for the state for years to come.”

Despite COVID, the department is implementing more math instruction and, under the Alabama Literacy Act, more reading support in the lower grades.

“Any contention that we’re being complacent is just unfounded,” he said. 

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