The Associated Press
MONTGOMERY — Republican legislators on Thursday expanded a routine education bill to include tax credits for parents who move their children from failing public schools to private schools, prompting the state school superintendent to withdraw his support and a teachers’ group to assail it as “totally anti-public education.”
The revised version cleared the House and Senate, with Republicans voting for it and Democrats opposing it in an unusually heated debate. State Superintendent of Education Tommy Bice dropped his support, but Republican Gov. Robert Bentley said he would sign it into law.
“I truly believe it is the most significant piece of legislation that’s been passed in this Legislature in years,” the governor said.
Initially, the bill was to allow city and county school systems to get approval from the state’s school superintendent and school board to have flexibility in complying with state education laws. It was backed by the Legislature’s GOP leadership, the governor and Bice.
After the House and Senate passed different versions of the bill, a legislative conference committee dominated by Republicans put out a new version Thursday afternoon that expanded the bill from nine pages to 27. Those extra pages added tax credits for parents who move their children from a failing public school to a non-failing public school, private school or parochial school. It also creates a scholarship program for parents who can’t afford a move. Business and individuals would get tax credits for contributing scholarship money.
Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said the bill gives hope to parents whose children are stuck in failing schools and will force school boards to address poorly performing schools. “We took flexibility and turned it into accountability,” he said.
The executive secretary of the Alabama Education Association, Henry Mabry, said the Republicans’ original school flexibility bill was a Trojan horse to benefit private schools. “This is totally anti-public education,” he said.
The state superintendent said he worked on developing the original version of the bill, but had no input on the new version. He said it will have a significant negative financial impact on public schools.
“This is no longer the bill I gave my support to,” he said in an interview.
Sally Howell, executive director of the Alabama Association of School Boards, said she also worked on the original bill, but got “bushwhacked” by the changes.
Bentley said the surprise move had been in the works for a few days, but supporters like Howell and Bice weren’t included because Republicans knew they would oppose the tax credits. Marsh said Republicans didn’t want to delay a vote because that would have allowed opponents to inundate legislators with calls.
The new version provides the tax credits for parents of students now in failing schools. Failing schools include those in the bottom 10 percent on statewide reading and math assessment scores, with three consecutive D’s or one F on the school grading card, or labeled “persistently low-performing” on the state’s School Improvement Grant application.
The new version also allows flexibility from teacher tenure laws in failing schools, but not in other schools. They could have a tenure program for teachers who wanted it and a non-tenure track for those who don’t.
The four Republicans on the conference committee voted for the new version, and the two Democrats voted against it. Democratic Sen. Quinton Ross of Montgomery, a former public school principal on the committee, said the new version was designed by four white Republicans on the panel without any input from the committee’s two black Democrats.
Then the House approved it 51-26 and the Senate 22-11 on party-line votes. Before the Senate’s vote, members shouted and shook their fingers at each other, and Lt. Gov. Kay Ivey repeatedly called for order without success.