School boards group urges Bentley to send 'school flex' bill back to Lege
by Tim Lockette
Mar 04, 2013 | 6023 views |  0 comments | 9 9 recommendations | email to a friend | print
MONTGOMERY — As early as Tuesday, Gov. Robert Bentley could sign a bill that would give tax credits to some parents to send their children to private schools — even though it's not yet clear how much it would cost to offer that tax credit.

The Alabama Association of School Boards is urging the governor to instead make "executive amendments" to the hastily rewritten bill, in effect sending it back to the Legislature for another vote.

"We have implemented a major policy change with no estimate of the fiscal impact," said Sally Howell, director of the association.

School leaders and school policy groups have been scrambling since Thursday to analyze the bill, which was approved by the Alabama Senate and House of Representatives after major eleventh-hour changes.

The bill began life as the School Flexibility Act, a measure that would grant some schools "flexibility contracts" that would allow them to opt out of some state laws in order to better serve their students. That bill had wide support among school administrators, but was criticized by teachers' groups such as the Alabama Education Association as a potential threat to tenure.

The bill underwent extensive discussion and some amendment in legislative committees, and some of the bill's critics were able to reluctantly make their peace with it by Thursday morning.

Then the bill went into conference committee, the process by which House and Senate versions of bills are reconciled. It came out twice as long, with a new title — the Alabama Accountability Act — and provisions that would give parents of students in "failing" schools a chance to receive a tax credit of up to $7,500 which could be spent to send their children to private schools.

The re-written bill would also grant children zoned for "failing" schools the option to attend another public school, either in the same school system or in another system.

"I read it and I thought, 'oh my gosh,' this is an entirely different bill," said Eric Mackey, director of School Superintendents of Alabama, who had lobbied for the earlier version of the bill.

The bill passed both houses. Supporters say the tax credit proposal will give children in substandard schools a way out.

"The governor is supportive of this bill because it gives parents whose kids are going to failing schools another option," said Jennifer Ardis, a spokeswoman for Bentley.

Henry Mabry, executive secretary of the AEA, blasted the bill in a series of calls to reporters Friday.

"This takes money from public schools and gives it to private schools," he said.

Other critics of the bill say there are many unanswered questions with the current wording. Most notably, no one seems to know how much the bill would cost.

"Our numbers have ranged from $35 million to $125 million," Mackey said. He said lawyers and analysts at his organization were still in disagreement over the meaning of some of the bill's passages. Any losses would come from state revenue lost to the tax credits, plus additional costs to schools to implement demands of the bill.

Late Monday, the Alabama Association of School Boards released an estimate putting the cost somewhere between $59 million and $367 million.

Malissa Valdes-Hubert, spokeswoman for the state Department of Education, said the direct impact of the tax credits seemed to be limited to $25 million in lost state revenue. She said she had no estimate of the loss of revenue due to tax credits for scholarships that are also outlined in the bill. According to the bill, people and businesses can get a tax credit of as much as 50 percent of the money they donate to private-school scholarships for children.

The bill came without a fiscal note, the statement of fiscal impact that usually accompanies a bill.

Ardis said the governor's office is still assessing the cost as well.

"The cost analysis is going on right now," she said.

Bentley has already announced that he will sign the bill. Ardis said a signing was tentatively scheduled for Tuesday, but would depend on the governor's Tuesday schedule.

Who’s failing?

It's not clear whether any schools in Calhoun County would be affected by the bill. Mackey, former superintendent of Jacksonville schools, said Anniston High would probably qualify as a failing school under the bill’s provisions.

That's because the bill counts a school as "failing" if it's on the state's list for federal School Improvement Grants, given to struggling institutions.

Anniston High was on that list, in 2010, said Valdes-Hubert. But there hasn't been a grant application since. She said it's not clear whether that qualifies the 2010 listees as failing schools.

Attempts to reach Anniston school superintendent Joan Frazier on Monday were unsuccessful.

The bill also identifies failing schools as any schools that receive a D or F on the state's system for grading schools by letter. That system, passed last year, has yet to go into effect.

Lack of clarity about who qualifies for the tax credit is one reason school policy groups are having such a tough time assessing its fiscal impact. Another question is whether the tax credit would apply to this fiscal year, or would start in the next, Mackey said.

Schools would bear the cost for the revenue lost to the tax credit. Alabama's income tax goes to the Education Trust Fund budget, which pays for K-12 schools and colleges statewide.

Howell said the bill appeared to include other costs. The bill requires school systems to pay to transport children to an alternate school if they leave a failing school and choose another school in the same system.

It also requires school systems to address the special education needs of students who opt out of the public school system through the tax credit. Typically, public schools draft and follow an individualized education plan for each special education student, a plan known as an IEP.

"How can I be responsible for an IEP for a child who's not in my school?" Howell said.

Little love lost

Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said Friday that the bill was a victory for parents and kids in failing school districts.

"The bottom line is that they'll have a choice," he said.

School choice was a major theme in last year's legislative session, as legislators introduced a bill to create a system of charter schools. The bill, introduced by Republican lawmakers, seemed likely to pass easily, given the GOP supermajority in both houses.

But the charter school bill foundered on opposition from school administrators. Lawmakers earlier this year said they wouldn't bring the charter bill back.

Wording in the school flexibility bill expressly states that it won't create charter schools. But the tax credit, and the ability to opt out of the school system, does bear a resemblance to the the voucher system used in many charter states.

Marsh, who was in the conference committee that added the tax credit wording to the bill, said he didn't consider the tax credit to be equivalent to vouchers.

Mabry, the AEA director, claimed Friday that the bill would give Marsh "the white school in Anniston that he wants."

Mabry claimed that during talks about the charter school bill in 2012, Marsh told Mabry he was supporting charter schools because he wanted a "white school" in the city.

Marsh denies the claim.

"That is a total lie," Marsh said.

Historically, there has been little love lost between Marsh and the AEA. The teachers' group gave money to a PAC in 2010 to run a series of attack ads against Marsh. The senator has been known to refer to the AEA as a "special interest."

Relations between Republicans and school administrators' groups have typically been warmer, but last-minute changes to the school flexibility bill seemed to strain that relationship Monday.

Both Howell and Mackey said they were willing to consider the merits of the new form of the school flexibility bill. But both said they wish that discussion had happened earlier.

"Whether you philosophically agree with this bill or not, this is poor, poor policymaking," Howell said.

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.
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