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School choice substitute bill coming, will include fund cap

A substitute is expected next week for the GOP-priority school choice bill that, if passed, will allow families to spend up to $7,000 per child in public funds per year at private schools.

As currently written, Senate Bill 61 sets up a new state fund that lawmakers each year would allocate at least $100 million to fund private and homeschool educations through tax credits.

Public education groups and Democrats have voiced concern about several aspects of the bill, including the absence of a cap on the annual state allocation.

Sponsor Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, told Alabama Daily News Wednesday a revised version of the bill, expected next week in the Senate education budget committee he chairs, will cap the total amount in that fund at any point.

“It can’t grow to a sizable amount and then grow beyond that,” Orr told ADN. The exact amount of the limit hasn’t yet been finalized, he said.

Other expected changes will allow for a lesser contribution to the fund from the state if the previous year’s funding was not all expended. For example, if only $20 million of the $100 million is used one year, the Legislature could add less than $100 million the following year.

There will also be a requirement that private schools publicly share cumulative information about students’ achievement under the standardized testing required in the bill. Public school groups have opposed a testing requirement they say won’t adequately compare private and public school results.

At a public hearing before the Senate committee on Wednesday, several public school education groups thanked legislative leaders and Gov. Kay Ivey’s team for bringing them to the table for discussions on the bill.

“They have been very open with us and above board and talked with us,” Vic Wilson, executive director of the Council for Leaders in Alabama Schools, later told Alabama Daily News. “That doesn’t mean we’re happy with everything, but I just feel so much better about the process.”

At the same meeting, several school choice advocates thanked lawmakers for the legislation.

Bill proponent Adam Thompson, state director of Americans for Prosperity, said the bill does not change the Foundation Program, which allocates per-student state funding for educational basics.

“This does not defund public education,” he said. “This is an opportunity for families to make the best decisions for their students.”

The committee did not vote on the bill and is awaiting the substitute. 

The proposal, which allows families to receive tax credits to fund their educational choices, would also allow for $2,000 per year in homeschool expenses, up to $4,000 per family.

Sally Smith, executive director of the Alabama Association of School Boards, said her organization isn’t “enthusiastic” about the bill, “but we do want to get it right.”

“We do want to protect the ETF long term and my concerns are looking at the financial issues long term,” she said.

While the $100 million per year has been described as a spending floor, Smith and others want that cap.

“We believe that as private schools and parents figure this out, they’re going to demand that their private schools participate in this,” she said. “We’re not worried about our children necessarily leaving public schools. We’re worried about people currently in private schools who have already opted out wanting to make sure they get their $7,000.

“This is going to put tremendous pressure on you and be a budget battle every year…”

Nick Moore, education policy advisor for Ivey, noted that since the governor’s tenure began in 2017, public school enrollment has declined by 1.2%.

Ashley McLain, director of governmental affairs for School Superintendents of Alabama, said the ESA-accepting private schools need to have a test similar to the Alabama Comprehensive Assessment Program, which public school students take.

“We are constantly being attacked on our academic performance … if competition breeds improvement, then we need to know we’re in head-to-head (competition),” McLain said.

 Moore said the ACAP is aligned to the state’s curriculum and requiring private schools to use it would be interfering with their curriculum. If the state did that, private schools would likely refuse to participate in the program.

The bill does not require private schools to accept children using the savings account but does say participating students must “take a standardized assessment aligned to the curricula of the participating school, a nationally norm-referenced achievement assessment, or a nationally recognized aptitude assessment of the participating school’s choice.”

The bill would also allow families to attend out-of-district public schools that accept students for a fee.

Nathan Sanders with EdChoice, a national choice advocacy group, told lawmakers that most studies show public school test scores increase at least slightly when parents have more educational options.

Others countered that five Alabama counties have no private school options and most only have one. Most people who will be able to use the tax credit legislation for private education live in metro areas.

The tax credit program would cover expenses including: Tuition, textbooks, fees for after-school or summer education programs, private tutoring, educational software and applications and education services for students with disabilities. It also covers contracted services at public schools, including classroom instruction.

The first 500 ESAs each year would be reserved for students with special education needs.

In the first two years of the program, qualifying families would have an income cap at or below 300% of the federal poverty level, about $90,000 for a family of four.

The bill, unveiled last week and a cornerstone of Ivey’s state of the state address, is a GOP priority this session. It’s carried by Rep. Danny Garrett, R-Trussville, in the House. 

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