Senators voted 21-12 in favor of a bill designed to address criticisms of the Accountability Act, a bill that would give families a tax credit of around $3,500 to move their children out of "failing" public schools and into either private schools or non-failing public schools.
The changes approved Thursday would guarantee schools the right to refuse students who are transferring out of "failing" schools. It would change the definition of a "failing" school so that fewer schools would be on the "failing" list — a change that would reduce the number of families eligible for the tax credit.
Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said he was proud of both the Accountability Act and the revisions the Senate passed on Thursday.
"Changes are already happening in these (school) systems because of the Accountability Act," Marsh said.
The Accountability Act has been a source of heated debate in the Legislature since its passage Feb. 28. The bill started its life as the School Flexibility Act, a measure that would give schools the ability to opt out of some state regulations for academic reasons. After it passed both houses, a conference committee, appointed to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the bill, brought back a longer bill with a new name that set up the tax-credit program.
That last-minute change has been a source of friction between Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature ever since, and that friction heated up debate on the Accountability Act changes Thursday. Shouting erupted in the Senate when the GOP majority voted to limit debate on the changes to about 20 minutes.
"We have dealt with this this entire session," said Senate Minority Leader Vivian Figures, D-Mobile. "This is so important and you have rammed this down our throats."
Marsh countered that potential changes to the Accountability Act had been discussed since the day the original bill was passed.
"These changes have been discussed for the last couple of months," he said.
The original Accountability Act included four definitions of "failing" schools, including one that would place schools in the bottom 10 percent on academic performance in the failing category. Critics charged that the standard would keep one out of every 10 schools in failing status no matter how much schools improved overall.
Under the bill passed on Thursday, the failing schools list would be limited to schools scoring in the bottom 6 percent on academic performance in three of the last six years. Marsh told The Star it would reduce the number of schools on the failing list. It wasn't clear how much that would change the act's impact on the state's education budget. State officials have estimated that the school tax credits would cost the state anywhere between $30 million and $70 million per year.
Democrats and a handful of Republicans asked for addition of a means test — essentially, an income cap to keep the wealthiest families from using the tax credit to send their children to private schools. The bill passed without addition of a means test.
"This Legislature is taking tens of millions of dollars away from public schools to give directly to private schools," said Henry Mabry, executive director of the Alabama Education Association, the state's largest professional association for teachers.
On the Senate floor, Marsh maintained that the Accountability Act has already fostered positive change in schools.
"This is the first time I have seen action going on in this system, with ... improvements being made," he said. In an interview with The Star after the vote, Marsh said he didn't have specifics, but had heard from teachers who said schools were more motivated to change as a result of the act.
Senators also criticized the bill's wording that would allow schools to reject students transferring under the Accountability Act, saying the change could keep many students from having access to the tax credit. Marsh said he was responding to concerns from public school leaders who said they had no room for new students.
School administrators in Calhoun County, he said, "came right out and said we can't take anybody." Marsh's bill would require schools to comply with federal laws that ban discrimination against students on the basis of race.
The Senate bill differs from a set of changes to the Accountability Act that were approved by the House last week. Shortly after the Senate vote Thursday afternoon, the House voted to accept the Senate version. That moves the bill on to the governor's desk for approval or a veto.
If the changes are vetoed, the original Accountability Act will remain in place.
HOW THEY VOTED
Marsh, R-Anniston: Yes
Dial, R-Lineville: Yes
Fielding, R-Sylacauga: Yes
A yes vote would approve a set of changes to the Alabama Accountability Act
Capitol & statewide correspondent: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.