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School choice, funding bill to get public hearing in Senate committee

An expansive school choice bill that would allow parents to take $6,900 a year in taxpayer funding to an alternative educational setting will get its first formal discussion in the State House on Wednesday.

Senate Bill 202 creates educational savings accounts funded by the state. Parents could use the per-student funding on an array of educational expenses at private schools and home schools. 

“The bill is about total freedom for parents to make the best decisions for their children,” sponsor Sen. Larry Stutts, R-Tuscumbia, told Alabama Daily News. “I think it’s a fundamental right for parents to make these kinds of decisions for their children. Then the state money simply follows the child.”

Rep. Ernie Yarbrough, R-Trinity, is the House sponsor. 

A public hearing on the bill is scheduled in the Senate Education Policy Committee at 9 a.m. Wednesday. Advocates and opponents are expected to speak. The committee will not vote on the bill Wednesday, chairman Sen. Donnie Chesteen, R-Geneva, said.

Under the bill, existing private and public schools can decide if they’ll accept students under the law — public schools could charge a fee for out-of-district students. Private schools could still decide who they’ll accept as students. The bill says all educational service providers will be given “maximum freedom to provide for the educational needs of participating students without government control …”

The bill doesn’t require any sort of standardized academic testing for the students receiving the state funds outside of state schools. That is a problem for some Republican leaders. Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, chairs the House Education Policy Committee, she said she’s been pleased with some changes to the bill, but hopes the sponsors will add some accountability.

“I am for family choice in education, I am also for improved achievement,” Collins told Alabama Daily News. “And that only comes with accountability.”

Stutts said parents are ultimately the ones accountable for their children’s education and can decide where their education dollars are best spent.

Stutts said the bill would allow participating families to receive a debit card. They could only use their education savings account funds on approved expenses and with schools and educational service providers registered with the state. The Department of Revenue can audit ESAs and service providers if misuse of funds is suspected. 

Approved expenses can include tuition, books, tutoring, computers or other technology and various therapies, including speech and behavioral.

Students would be eligible to receive the funding — which would be adjusted annually — through grade 12. After they graduate, leftover funds could be spent on post-secondary classes.

That could help more students learn a trade or attend college, Stutts argues.

“When you look at getting the workforce prepared in the state, we’re encouraging people to do that in this bill,” Stutts said.

One of those expected to speak in favor of the bill Wednesday is Terry Lathan, the former chair of the Alabama Republican Party. She recently formed a new group, Republicans on a Mission — ROAM — to organize party members around the state to show up in Montgomery and contact lawmakers about issues important to the party. This session, that issue is school choice, Lathan said. 

“Republicans are the party of personal freedom, to allow people to make their own choices as much as possible,” Lathan said. “… I can’t think of a stronger family freedom than simply allowing a parent to use their money to dictate where their child goes to school and not a ZIP code.”

The ALGOP on Tuesday released an internal poll showing that as many as 67% of Republicans and 57% all voters support the concept of school choice.

Among those speaking against the bill will be a representative of the School Superintendents of Alabama.

“If we want to see Alabama’s schools continue to improve, the Legislature has to maintain the investment they have made over the last few years,” Ryan Hollingsworth, executive director of SSA, told Alabama Daily News on Tuesday. “Funneling the public’s money away from public schools won’t do anything to improve NAEP scores and handing out checks without financial accountability isn’t good fiscal policy.”

Participating students would receive $6,900 in state funding in the 2024-2025 school year if the proposal as currently written became law. 

Eligibility to qualify for an ESA would be phased in over three academic years. Starting in 2024-2025, with kindergarten students, “or who will be enrolled in the third, sixth, ninth, and twelfth grades during that school year, or who is zoned for the lowest 30 percent of K-12 public schools based on the state standardized assessment in reading and math, qualifies for special education, is homeless, is in foster care, or is the child of a parent who is on active duty, serves in a reserve component of the United States Armed Forces, or was killed in the line of duty, along with the siblings of any eligible child pursuant to this subdivision, may apply…”

By fall 2026, all students would be eligible. 

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