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Senate advances expansion of private school scholarship program

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama senators on Tuesday advanced an expansion of a state program that provides scholarships fueled by state tax credits for students to attend private K-12 schools.

Senators voted 26-7 for the legislation that would raise the household income cap and make other changes to increase the number of students eligible for the program. The bill now moves to the Alabama House of Representatives.

The bill advanced as Republicans across the country have championed various forms of school choice legislation, ranging from vouchers to scholarship programs, to provide public support for private school or other education options.

“This has been in place for ten years. We wanted to try to look for opportunities to expand it to make scholarships accessible to more students,” Sen. Donnie Chesteen, the bill’s sponsor, told reporters after the vote.

The program, known as the Alabama Accountability Act, gives people and companies income tax credits for donations to scholarship granting organizations. Eligible students can use the scholarships to attend a participating private school or to pay to transfer to another public school. The legislation would raise the income cap for the scholarships from $55,500 for a family of four to $75,000, to try to bring more students into the program.

Chesteen estimated that the changes could quickly expand the number of students using the program from about 3,000 students to about 4,400.

The legislation would also gradually raise the cap on the tax credits that fuel the scholarships from $30 million to $40 million, and eventually up to $60 million.

The approval came after a more than four-hour filibuster. Republicans created the Alabama Accountability Act in 2013, pushing through the legislation in a chaotic legislative night over the objections of Democrats. Tuesday’s debate rehashed longstanding disagreements about the program with opposed lawmakers arguing it doesn’t benefit the poorest families or school systems.

“We need to be trying to fix the common denominator, which is the public school, instead of running away from it and creating all these other mechanisms to where people can go,” Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton said.

On the opposite end of the political spectrum, Republican Sen. Larry Stutts argued the state should give families more non-public school options. He urged senators to also take up his voucher bill that would give parents up to $6,900 annually in state funds for private school or home classroom expenses.

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