Gov. Robert Bentley made a mistake, owned up to it and now is trying to correct it.
Lawmakers, who made the same mistake, should follow his lead.
Bentley’s mistake was signing the Accountability Act into law. Along with other lawmakers, he deliberately hid the bill from the public and from educators who could have pointed out its obvious flaws. In the space of less than two hours, a good bill providing flexibility to school districts became an enormously expensive law purporting to provide school choice to students in failing schools.
The law defines “failing” so broadly that it includes excellent schools with disadvantaged populations — including Decatur Developmental — and leaves 10 percent of Alabama schools on a perpetual failing list. The 80,000 students in these “failing” schools can transfer to private schools. The parents of all who elect to transfer will receive a voucher worth about $3,500 to apply to tuition. Another part of the law sets up a $25 million scholarship fund, payable to private schools.
All of the money for the program comes from the Education Trust Fund, which already has shrunk by 22 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars since 2008.
The law is riddled with inconsistencies. One portion, for example, suggests families of students already enrolled in private schools — regardless of their income — can receive the tax credits, while another part suggests the opposite. The Department of Revenue has yet to make a decision on an issue which could end up in the courts. The answer to this one question could drain $42 million from the ETF.
The numerous flaws in the Accountability Act led to the passage last week of a replacement, House Bill 658. The bill narrows the list of failing schools, but it does not address the question of whether families of students already enrolled in private schools can claim the tax credits. It broadens the ETF-funded scholarship program, making it available to students in schools that are not failing.
Cost estimates range from $40 million to $110 million.
On Wednesday, Bentley finally stepped in. With one day — Monday — left in the legislative session, Bentley filed an executive amendment. The amendment would preserve the flexibility portion of the law, but delay for two years implementation of the portions of the law that subsidize private schools.
The two-year delay provides the time needed to correct the numerous drafting errors, this time with input from educators and tax experts.
The delay also gives the flexibility portions of the law time to work.
Both versions of the Accountability Act go into effect immediately. Neither the Revenue Department nor the Education Department have written regulations on how to implement the confusing law.
Local school districts must send notices to families of children in failing schools before school starts in August. Without regulations, however, they do not know which of their schools are failing. The notices must give instructions on how to claim tax credits, but the Revenue Department does not know who is entitled to the credits.
Bentley deserves plenty of criticism for signing the Accountability Act. Finally, though, he has recognized the mistake and has offered a solution.
He needs support from legislators of both parties. On Monday, they should provide it.