MONTGOMERY — Republicans are calling it one of the most innovative opportunities for education in Alabama and a chance for students to get out of chronically failing schools.
Democrats and other opponents say it will take money from the state’s entire educational system and leave poor children behind.
First known as the School Flexibility Act and now called the Accountability Act, House Bill 84 could significantly change education in the state.
State Superintendent of Education Tommy Bice and some local school leaders supported an early version of the bill because it offered systems more local authority over how they use resources — from money to hours in a day.
After weeks of discussion and public hearings, the bill was greatly changed and hurriedly passed Feb. 28. The new version includes tax credits for parents who transfer their children from failing public schools to private or other public schools.
Soon after the bill passed, House Speaker Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, said, “It gives administrators and teachers in failing systems the flexibility they need to improve their performance, and it provides students trapped in these systems a lifeline to access the education opportunities they deserve.”
Democrats and the Alabama Education Association see the primary benefactors being private companies and wealthy families.
“The effect of this bill will be to cause Alabama to step back 50 years or more to the days of segregation, with the wealthier children moving to the private schools and the poorer students remaining in the failing schools,” said Sen. Tammy Irons, D-Florence.
The Alabama Education Association filed a lawsuit in a Montgomery County court a few days after the bill passed.
The group, which opposed the bill even in its original form, said the Legislature violated its own rules and the state’s open meetings law when it added the tax-credit language.
A judge stopped Gov. Robert Bentley from signing the bill last week and set a hearing for late this week. The GOP leadership has appealed to the all-Republican state Supreme Court and asked Thursday for an expedited ruling.
Bentley has said he will sign the bill when it reaches him, but he also told a Huntsville TV station that he might make changes.
“We’re looking at parts of it, and we will decide when it gets to our desk if we need to make some changes and send it back,” he told WHNT-19.
Meeting just one of the four criteria outlined in the bill will put a school on the failure list; 202 are on a list developed by Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh’s office.
Marsh said that number could change with input from the Department of Education, which wasn’t consulted before the failing-school and tax-credit language was added to the bill.
In Decatur City Schools, Decatur Developmental and Brookhaven Middle School are on Marsh’s list.
But Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, said last week that being on the list doesn’t necessarily define a school and she hopes to see Decatur Developmental removed from it.
“We have families that moved to Decatur for Decatur Developmental,” she said of the school for students with cognitive disabilities. “I don’t see families choosing to leave.”
Public money, through the tax credits, will follow students to private schools under the bill. How much remains unclear and will depend largely on how many parents pull children out of failing schools.
Democrats and the AEA put the estimate as high as $347 million a year; Republicans say it will be much lower.
If 10 percent of Brookhaven Middle School’s 650 students chose to leave, the school would lose $230,945 from state funding. If 20 percent of the students left, the school would lose nearly a half-million dollars.
But GOP supporters say the impact won’t be that great. They estimate losing $50 million to $125 million from the education trust fund that this year is more than $5 billion. They also argue that failing schools will still receive 20 percent of per-student funding — for students they no longer have to teach.
Marsh said failing schools will be forced to spend money more wisely. He used his Anniston system as an example of a district that probably has more schools than it needs.
“There could be a school that could be closed, so that’s bricks and mortar being eliminated and money going back to the classroom,” Marsh said.
House Bill 84 also creates a scholarship program for parents who can’t afford a move to private schools. Businesses and individuals would get tax credits for contributing scholarship money, which could pull up to $25 million a year from the education trust fund. The fund supports K-12 education as well as community colleges and four-year universities.
“When you pull money from the ETF, when you take money off the top, that is not just hurting failing schools, that is hurting all of us,” said Florence City Schools Superintendent Janet Womack said.
While the “flexibility” portion of the bill allows schools to make changes, it doesn’t mandate any. Forced improvements will come through another bill making its way through the Legislature.
Senate Bill 60 states the state Board of Education “may intervene in the educational operations of a city or county board of education and thereby assume general and direct control over all decisions” if the state superintendent determines a majority of the schools in the system are “priority schools.”
“There’s nothing to force right now the public system to be accountable,” Marsh said. “Before the state could not intervene for academic reasons. They could for financial reasons, but not because they weren’t meeting the grades.”