The confusion among lawmakers about the school voucher law they approved Thursday is disturbing.
Their failure to understand the bill involves both the details and the devastating effect it may have on public schools.
In broad terms, the bill creates two separate types of tax credits. The families of students assigned to failing schools get a tax credit of $3,500 which they can apply to the tuition of a private or religious school if they elect to transfer. The other tax credit is available to individuals or corporations who finance a scholarship fund designed to make up the large gap between $3,500 and the tuition charged by the private school they elect to attend, if the school agrees to accept them.
Both tax credits are financed entirely by the Education Trust Fund, so the money comes directly from the operating budget of public schools.
Gov. Robert Bentley said Monday the only way a school could be labeled “failing,” thus triggering tax credits for students who elect to leave the school and attend a private or parochial school, is based on a school-grading system included in a law passed last session. He is wrong. The bill he said he will sign today includes four different methods a school can end up in the failing category.
Many of the Republican lawmakers who voted for the bill — some of whom had no more time than Democrats to review it — thought the ETF’s maximum financial exposure was $25 million. The $25 million cap, however, only applies to the scholarship fund. The far greater exposure comes from the vouchers issued to students who elect to transfer from “failing” public schools to private ones.
Estimates from Bentley and lawmakers on how many schools fall into the “failing” category range from 75 to 202. The agency that has the data — the state Department of Education — is scrambling to come up with a number. Bentley and GOP lawmakers — who have a supermajority in both houses — intentionally concealed the bill from the state superintendent because they feared he would oppose it.
Not only do they not know how many schools are affected, Bentley and lawmakers don’t know how many students are enrolled in those schools. A blind-sided Department of Education is trying to pull the numbers. Bentley admits he has no idea how much the bill will cost.
Bentley said Monday lobbyists had no input into the bill. In fact, the bill is modeled after a template created by the American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization funded by corporate interests likely to benefit from its model laws.
Numerous studies of similar laws in other states find no benefit to students who use the vouchers.
The reason Bentley and many lawmakers do not understand the bill is the deceitful way in which it was passed. Senate Pro Tem Del Marsh, the driving force behind the bill, and Bentley candidly admit they tried to keep education officials, other lawmakers and the public from discovering the 28-page bill existed. They succeeded. It emerged from a conference committee slated to work out minor differences in the House and Senate versions of a seven-page bill on school flexibility.
Lawmakers passed a bill that will dramatically reduce funding for public schools. They did so without understanding the bill, and while trying to avoid input.
That’s no way to pass a bill. It’s no way to run a state.