By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News
State Sen. Del Marsh said he’s filing “the mother of all school choice bills” and expects it to get approval in its first committee on Wednesday.
Dubbed the Parent’s Choice Act, the bill would allow for education savings accounts in which parents can retain their portion of education tax dollars to spend on alternative schooling for their children, including private school or homeschool.
If it becomes law and is fully implemented by the 2024-25 school year, the bill would provide state funding — now about $6,500 — to any K-12 students, including those students in public school, private school and homeschool, no matter their financial status.
“These are state dollars and those dollars should be available to parents to decide what is best for their children,” Marsh, R-Anniston, said Saturday when discussing a draft of his bill with Alabama Daily News.
Meanwhile, Marsh said, the state is spending more money on a public education system with declining enrollment and last or near last spots in nation rankings.
“The perception is that Alabama doesn’t care about education,” Marsh said. “I think that’s a very dangerous place to be, especially when you’re trying to improve your economy, improve your quality of life.”
Other states have pursued similar policies. West Virginia has an education savings accounts law on the books and the Georgia Legislature is considering one at the moment.
A fiscal note from the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency won’t be available until the bill is in committee. But Marsh said there are about 60,000 students currently in private schools and another about 10,000 learning at home.
“Fully implemented, if you look at where these kids are today, it would be a hit on the Education Trust Fund of about $420 million,” Marsh said. “I’m acknowledging that.”
Marsh went on to say that now is the time for his bill because there is a significant surplus in the education budget, meanwhile, federal relief money is providing billions to K-12 education.
“There is plenty of money out there,” Marsh said.
Marsh said in recent years the annual education for K-12 and higher education has increased more than $1 billion, but student performance isn’t improving. Next year’s proposed education budget is a record $8.3 billion, $5.6 billion of which is for K-12. Ten years ago, the $5.4 billion education budget had $3.7 billion for K-12.
Alabama’s average per-student spending is well below the national average.
Marsh gave up the Senate’s top job in late 2020 to focus on a few priority bills, including school choice expansion. Last year he sponsored a bill to allow students from outside a system to enroll in its schools for a fee. It cleared the Senate Education Policy Committee but didn’t get a vote in the full chamber. Pushback from some education groups was strong.
“I thought, if I’m going to have to put up with all this, let’s just go for all of it,” Marsh told Alabama Daily News.
Earlier this month, Marsh said he wouldn’t file a bill this session unless he knew it had support. Now, he seems assured.
“I’m filing it Tuesday and I’m going to come out of committee Wednesday,” he said. The bill will start in the Senate Education Policy Committee.
The bill creates education savings accounts in which the state treasurer deposits funds “to pay qualifying education expenses of a participating student…”
The bill defines “education service providers” as individuals or organizations that receive payments from the education savings accounts to provide “educational goods or services to participating students.”
That can include homeschools. Marsh said during the COVID-19 pandemic, teaching their children at home became the only option for many parents.
COVID and test scores aside, Marsh said it’s time to change how education is funded.
“As you look in the future at the different way we’re going to have to educate kids and options, it’s time to move to a parent’s choice model,” Marsh said.
According to the American Federation for Children, a school choice advocacy group, 22 states last year approved legislation either creating or expanding choice options.
Marsh’s bill also makes it easier for students to attend public schools they don’t live near, but it doesn’t require any school — private or public — to accept students.
“If Mountain Brook says they don’t want to do this, that’s fine,” Marsh said. “On the other hand, what Mountain Brook could do if they wanted to, they could say, ‘OK, we’re gonna have 50 slots available this year. Our local citizens pay another $2,000 on top of the state money. If you want to come to Mountain Brook, bring your $6,500 and bring another $2,000 and you can go to school here.’
“That’s their choice. They can come up with whatever works for them.”
Marsh is not seeking reelection, but many of his colleagues are. He waited until after Friday’s 2022 candidate qualifying deadline to circulate the draft. Marsh said he didn’t want to file it when focus was on last week’s special session on American Rescue Plan Act funds.
“To me, this should be the most important bill of the session … I want the spotlight on school choice.”
If approved by lawmakers and Gov. Kay Ivey, the law would go into effect July 1.
Only students who are enrolled in and attending a public school or being home schooled, or entering kindergarten, may apply for participating student status for the 2022-2023 school year.
The next school year, the program would be opened to students attending private schools if their family has an adjusted gross income up to 200% the federal poverty level for the preceding tax year. For a family of four, that’s about $53,000. The state’s median household income is about $50,536, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
By 2024-2025, any student, regardless of income or where they attend school, could apply to the program.
A seven-member board would oversee the choice program and would include the state treasurer, finance director and four governor-appointed parents.
The board may solicit and accept financial donations, including money and property, to fund education savings accounts. The board can audit an educational service provider that “routinely failed to provide students with promised educational goods or services” and can also bar from the program providers it determines “intentionally and substantially misused education savings account funds.”
Participating students and schools are required to maintain compliance withbthe constitution and bylaws of the Alabama High School Athletic Association member schools, according to the bill.