MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Expanding school choice options in Alabama and how they’re funded will be a significant part of the 2024 legislative session. What’s still unclear is exactly what a majority of 140 lawmakers will agree on.
An attempt was made to introduce education savings accounts in Alabama this past session with the PRICE Act, which would have awarded roughly $6,900 to parents per student, though it never garnered enough support to become law.
Sen. Larry Stutts, R-Tuscumbia, one of the two sponsors of the bill, plans to reintroduce the PRICE Act during the 2024 legislative session that begins in February, and is currently in the process of finalizing its language.
“I’m continuing to work on it and have met with folks from the governor’s office about two or three weeks ago,” Stutts told Alabama Daily News on Monday.
“We don’t have a final draft yet but are working toward that. I’m still working on it, and am very hopeful that we’re going to have something that the governor, Lt. governor, and the vast majority of the legislature are all going to get behind.”
The two chairs for the State House and Senate Education Policy committees also remained open to education savings accounts, both telling ADN on Tuesday that their support would be contingent on the bill’s final form.
“I think we will see some legislation coming this year pertaining to education savings accounts, and I will be open to listening to what is presented to us,” said Sen. Donnie Chesteen, R-Geneva, who chairs the Senate committee on education policy. “We’ll see what the total cost is going to be, I think that’s the big issue we’re looking at with this act.”
Were Stutts’ bill to end up identical to the PRICE Act, the cost would come out to be approximately $697 million a year from the state’s Education Trust Fund budget once fully phased in, according to a fiscal note attached to the bill.
Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, the chair of the House committee on education policy, also remained opened to the idea, having sponsored a number of bills last session expanding school choice such as House Bill 442, which would have allotted up to $45 million in scholarships to be used toward public school alternatives.
“I think we will probably see (the PRICE Act return),” Collins told ADN Tuesday. “I’d have to see how it changes. I’ll wait to see all the choices before I commit to one.”
Collins’ largest holdout in fully committing to support the PRICE Act, she previously stated, was the lack of accountability measures included to ensure public school alternatives were adequately teaching students. Stutts has said he isn’t opposed to including means testing in his bill as a form of accountability, though for opponents of education savings accounts, any diversion of public school money to private schools is a non-starter.
Opposition to education savings accounts largely exists among state Democrats, with the entire Alabama House Democratic Caucus publicly condemning what they called “school choice voucher schemes” in a statement released Monday.
“Tell your legislator that public education dollars should not be diverted to private schools,” the statement reads. “We must protect and increase public education funding.”
Another critic of education savings accounts is David Bronner, CEO of the Retirement Systems of Alabama, who in September cautioned lawmakers from adopting such policies. Bronner again spoke out against education savings accounts in the October issue of The Advisor, a monthly newsletter published by the RSA.
In the op-ed, Bronner pointed to Florida’s recent expansion of its school voucher program, which, similar to education savings accounts, allows parents to receive and use tax dollars earmarked for public schools for public school alternatives like private schools.
Signed by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis in March, the expansion removed income eligibility requirements for school vouchers, allowing parents of any student to receive roughly $8,000 for the 2023-2024 school year to put toward expenses for public school alternatives.
Bronner noted that under Florida’s school voucher program, parents would be permitted to use those dollars on not just public school alternative expenses, but things like theme park passes, televisions and paddleboards, and warned that Alabama’s foray into school choice could end up largely the same.
“Do Alabama taxpayers want their valuable taxes to be spent this way?” Bronner wrote.
“Removal of income caps for voucher programs and allowing parents to directly spend taxpayer monies is a recipe for abuse. Will a parent with a drug, alcohol, or gambling problem really worry about their kids’ education?”
While the education savings account bill Stutts intends on introducing in 2024 has yet to be finalized, he told ADN that it would be “very similar to the PRICE Act,” which did impose limits on what funds could be used toward.
Most permitted expenses were directly related to education and extracurricular services, though the bill did permit expenses for things like computers and other technological devices so long as they are used to “help meet the educational needs” of a student.
As to Bronner’s concerns, Stutts argued that his bill would have adequate restrictions on approved expenditures. That said, he also argued it was “absurd” to entirely limit parents to spending education dollars on just direct school services.
“Does public school money get spent on field trips, do they go on field trips in school buses?” Stutts posed.
“Oh yea. If you’re home schooling, and you’ve got that money, and you take your home-schooled children to Montgomery to tour the capitol, (to say) you couldn’t pay for that trip out of your educational money, I mean that’s absurd. Public schools make all kinds of field trips. Does public school money get spent on football uniforms? Yea.”