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School choice bill in Senate this week, tougher path in House

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

The school choice bill that will allow state funding to follow students to private schools or homeschool settings is expected to move quickly in the Alabama Senate.

The lift in the House could be heavier.

“I do think this will be a little more difficult in the House, but this issue has polled incredibly high Republicans and Democrats,” bill sponsor Rep. Charlotte Meadows, R-Montgomery, said Monday

“… This being an election year, I’m hopeful that parents will get to their state representatives and say, ‘You know what, it’s time.’” 

Meadows and Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, this week are filing companion bills that would allow state funding, about $6,500 per student, as early as next year to follow some away from public schools. By 2024-2025, the program would be open to any student, including those already in private schools. Marsh last week told Alabama Daily News the bill could pull about $420 million per year from the state’s Education Trust Fund.

He said he expects a favorable vote in Senate Education Policy on Wednesday. 

The 105-member House has been less hospitable to school choice bills of late. Asked to comment on the legislation, Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon was noncommittal Monday.

“Many good and worthy bills are competing for attention in a session that will likely be shortened by the primary campaign season,” he said. “Since becoming Speaker, I’ve avoided picking winners and always let the legislative process determine which bills gain momentum.”

Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, is chair of the House Education Policy Committee, where the House bill will likely be assigned.

“(Marsh and Meadows) have worked hard on this legislation to map a way for parents to choose the best plan for educating their children and funding to go toward the child’s best interest and not the system’s best interest,” Collins said Monday. “I look forward to hearing debate as the bill moves through the process.”

Several Democrat leaders in the House and Senate on Monday told Alabama Daily News they had not yet seen the legislation.

House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels, D-Huntsville, said to help education in the state, leaders need to invest more in pre-K programs and after-school and summer-school initiatives designed to help struggling students.

“It’s like me riding down Interstate 65,” Daniels said. “I’m not going to build Interstate 64 right next to it just because there are potholes in the existing road.”

In the pandemic-altered last two years, Meadows said some families have been shut out of public education.

“They’ve been told, this is what our school system is doing, we don’t care if it’s convenient for you, or even if it works for your child,” she said.

Interrupted and remote learning has negatively impacted many students, Meadows said.

“We really need to be focusing on what we can do to make sure every child not only learns, but finishes the learning they missed out on the last two years.

“…This is all about giving parents the opportunity to help their child.”

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.”

Alabama Education Association Executive Director Amy Marlowe was studying a circulated draft of the bill Monday. 

She called the legislation the “No Vendor Left Behind Bill” because it would divert taxpayer money to providers that have “popped up” during COVID. 

Marsh’s bill is expected to be filed Tuesday and in committee Wednesday, raising concern for Marlowe about the speed in which this bill could move.

“We’re still waiting for the official bill to be dropped,” Marlowe said. “For something that’s going to cost $420 million, you’d think there’d be a little more transparency.”

The bill also allows scholarship money from the 2013 Alabama Accountability Act to be used to pay students’ tuition at private schools.

“We envision that being a supplemental program to this bill,” Meadows said, noting that $6,500 won’t pay a full year’s tuition at many private schools.

The 2013 law allows for tax credit-funded scholarships for families leaving the state’s lowest-performing public schools. There also is a separate $30 million-per-year scholarship fund for private school tuition. Businesses and individuals who donate to the fund receive income tax credits — money that would otherwise go to the state education budget. Scholarship granting organizations, or SGOs, collect and distribute the money to low-income families. Those students are not required to come from failing schools.

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