Lawmakers finally take stand for schools

It’s late in the session, but a handful of state senators — including Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur — are finally standing up to out-of-control colleagues.

At issue is the Alabama Accountability Act, passed this session. The claimed purpose of the law is to provide tax credits allowing students in failing public schools to transfer to private schools. The tax credits come from the Education Trust Fund, so the law reduces funding for public schools.

Even if the claimed purpose is a good one, the law is unlikely to accomplish it. The tax credits offered by the law are less than half of typical private-school costs. Private schools have no obligation to accept transferring students. The vast majority of students in failing schools rely on free- or reduced-cost lunches, which they would not receive if they transfer. Students would receive no transportation to the private schools. Families would not receive the tax credits until months after tuition is due.

The most significant question about the Accountability Act, therefore, was how much it would cost public schools if no students used it to transfer from a failing school.

The most straightforward interpretation of the law is that families of students already enrolled in private schools, but assigned to failing public schools, would receive the tax credits. According to the Alabama Association of School Boards, about 10,600 students fall in this category. Assuming tax credits of $4,000 per student, this represents a cost to the ETF of $42 million.

That cost loomed large, because public schools would lose the money even if the law turned out to be a complete flop. The Accountability Act would drain the $42 million from the ETF, plus another $25 million for a scholarship fund, even if not a single child actually transferred from a failing public school to a private school.

While that’s the most straightforward interpretation of the law, the state Department of Revenue made a stretch and interpreted it differently. The department concluded families with students already enrolled in private schools were not eligible for the credit. Its interpretation is important, because it’s the agency responsible for administering the program.

Many legislators questioned the Revenue Department’s interpretation. They responded to it by introducing replacement legislation that would remove any ambiguity, making clear that families already sending their children to private schools still get the ETF-funded tax credits.

The replacement bill, in other words, would guarantee that public schools would lose $42 million, even if it completely failed in its claimed purpose of offering school choice.

Finally, Sen. Arthur Orr spoke out.

“They should not apply to those who are already in private schools,” Orr said. “I would strongly consider voting for a repeal if the bill is going in a direction it was not intended to go.”

He said he plans to introduce an amendment or substitute bill today to address the issue.
Another North Alabama senator, Bill Holtzclaw, R-Madison, also expressed concerns.

The best result would be repeal of the law, which is deeply flawed because legislators prevented educators from having input. The fact that Orr and others finally are speaking out, however, is a sign that sanity may be returning to Montgomery.

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Filed under Alabama politics, education

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