Alabama Governor Signs School Choice Measure

Published March 14, 2013

Approximately 11,000 Alabama children attending failing public schools can receive private funds for private school now that Gov. Robert Bentley has signed a school choice bill.

Yesterday, the state Supreme Court lifted a restraining order on the bill. Teachers union officials who filed the restraining order promised they will immediately sue to stop the program.

“No student should be forced to remain in a school that cannot provide a quality education, and this law allows flexibility and choice for those students,” said bill sponsor Sen. Bill Holtzclaw (R-Madison), noting his child currently attends public school. “Often these families find themselves locked into a cycle of poverty as well, and school choice can break that cycle.”

This makes Alabama the 22nd state to allow private school choice, and the eleventh to allow it through tax-deductible donations to K-12 scholarship funds.

Statehouse ‘Chaos’
On Feb. 28 the Alabama Senate passed the “accountability act” 51-26 and the House passed it 22-11 after tripling the length of the bill` in a conference committee, adding the education tax credits. Bentley announced he would sign the bill on March 5, but the Alabama Educators Association (AEA) filed the restraining order first. The Supreme Court ruled no one can sue to stop a law that has not yet been signed.  

The restraining order charged House Republicans did not follow open meeting laws. AEA did not respond to a request for comment.

The surprise school choice addition created “chaos” in the statehouse, said Bradley Byrne, chairman of Alabama Reform, a nonprofit conservative group.

“We have supported school choice in the past, but we were not involved in this. I think the legislative leadership moved very quietly this year,” Byrne stated.

Political Horse-Trading
Democrats in the state legislature said they plan to filibuster every bill in response.

“Using every legal means to free children trapped in failing schools is no crime,” said Vicki Alger, a senior fellow of the Independent Women’s Forum in Washington, DC. “For decades opponents have used every conceivable technicality to block parental choice programs and keep children in schools that don’t work for them. That’s the real crime.”

The bill prompted shouting and angry words between Republicans and Democrats, and moved Republicans to offer State Superintendent Tommy Bice concessions on other education bills in order to repair their relationship, said Rep. Ed Henry (R-Decatur). That included a bill to withdraw Alabama from the Common Core, which a legislative committee tabled.

Prior to the tax credit component, the legislation primarily granted flexibility for high-performing principals and schools to enable more innovation. After legislators changed the bill, Bice dropped his support, saying in a statement he is concerned with the costs of implementing the tax credits. 

What School Choice Means
The scholarship portion will allow eligible students to choose to attend a public or private school.

“It will not be a dramatic loss for public schools, since only designated failing schools’ students whose parents who don’t qualify for an income tax credit are able to use the scholarship,” said Byrne.

Families of children eligible for the scholarships cannot earn more than 150 percent of the state’s median household income, or $62,100 for a family of four, and the children must be assigned to a failing public school.

Big ‘Return on Investment’
Individuals can deduct 100 percent of their donations to the scholarships, and businesses can deduct 50 percent. Middle-class and poor families can also deduct what they pay out of pocket for private tuition.

“Personal-use tax credits ease the burden on families with a tax liability,” Alger said. “Additionally, tax deductions and tax-credit scholarship programs conserve limited public resources because children who’d otherwise be educated at full public expense can attend less costly private schools. Official government reports from programs such as Florida’s show a $1.49 savings for every dollar it reduces state revenue—a 49 percent annual return on investment.”

The bill caps total deductions for scholarship contributions at $25 million, but does not cap tax credits families of students in failing schools can claim. The cap means about 11,000 children can receive scholarships, according to the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.

Image by Jim Bowen.