Education bill’s potential effects uncertain

Published 4:55 pm Wednesday, March 6, 2013

How the school choice tax credits bill the Alabama Legislature passed last week could affect Chilton County schools is as uncertain as the bill’s pending enactment.

House Bill 84, also known as the Alabama Accountability Act of 2013, is an education reform bill designed to give parents of children zoned for “failing” schools a tuition tax credit if they enroll in a private school or non-failing public school.

The controversial bill was moved briskly through the Legislature on Feb. 28, and Gov. Robert Bentley was expected to sign it into law Tuesday afternoon until Montgomery Circuit Judge Charles Price issued an order Tuesday morning blocking the bill from being sent to Bentley for signature.

The Alabama Education Association filed a lawsuit the night of March 4 seeking a restraining order against the act to prevent it from reaching Bentley’s desk for signature. The lawsuit was filed on claims that the Republican majority violated the Open Meetings Act when changes were made to the bill in conference committee with minimal discussion.

On Wednesday, Price granted a temporary restraining order to prevent Bentley from signing the Alabama Accountability Act and scheduled a hearing March 15 to discuss what to do next.

Opinions of legislators and school officials differ on how the Alabama Accountability Act would affect schools across the state.

Answers to questions such as how much funding the bill would cost the state and individual school systems as well as what criteria constitutes “failing” schools are yet to be confirmed.

The Alabama Accountability Act defines a failing school as one that has been labeled as persistently low-performing by the State Department of Education in grant applications for the federal School Improvement program; is listed in the lowest-performing 10 percent of public schools in standardized assessments of reading and math; has earned an “F” grade or three consecutive “D” grades under the state’s new grading system, which is not yet in place; or the state superintendent has declared it to be a failing school.

If the bill is signed into law, officials say Chilton County could have three schools in the failing category: Maplesville High, Jemison High and Thorsby High.

Chilton County Schools Superintendent Dave Hayden expressed concern over the Alabama Accountability Act potentially taking much-needed funding away from public schools and placing it in the private school sector.

“I don’t see any good outcome for the students in Chilton County on it,” Hayden said. “They all say they want to help us in the public schools, but it’s like they’re trying to rob us. If it’s passed like it is, I estimate it would cost Chilton County schools between $500,000 and $3.7 million in funding.”

Numbers indicate the state’s tax credits could add up to be anywhere from $50 million to $367 million. Each tax credit for families who would qualify is estimated to be about $3,500.

State Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, and Rep. Kurt Wallace, R-Maplesville, were among the legislative majority supporting the Alabama Accountability Act.

“I think it will have very little impact on Chilton County schools,” Ward said. “I think it will help school systems remain consistent. We need to look at how to improve all districts.”

Wallace said the bill is not expected to create a rushed movement of students from failing public schools to non-failing public or private schools, and the tax credits would not mean students would attend any school free of charge.

“Eighty-five percent of students will not be affected by the bill at all,” Wallace said. “[Parents are] going to have to really, really want their child to be out of a failing school. The money is still staying in the education pool; just a re-allocation of resources is what it amounts to.”

Alabama Education Association spokesman David Stout said the education community is opposed to the bill “because of the sheer damage that it’s going to do to students across the state.”

“It’s taking public education money to pay for private school vouchers,” Stout said. “If it succeeds, poor schools will be even poorer. AEA is going to be part of a team that’s going to fight this bill because it is bad for public schools in Alabama.”

The original eight-page bill many were calling the school flexibility bill was passed by the House of Representatives to allow public school systems more autonomy related to tenure for administrators and use of funds. It quickly morphed into the 28-page bill tagged as the Alabama Accountability Act the Legislature passed late Thursday night that would offer tax credits for parents of children in failing schools transferring to non-failing schools.

The bill would also enable the creation of Scholarship Granting Organizations that would pay tuition for qualifying students with the requirement that some students are from low-income families.

Funding for the tax credits and scholarships would come from the state’s Education Trust Fund.