MONTGOMERY — A week after House Bill 84 passed the Legislature, state and local school officials are still debating how it will impact education statewide.
The legislation, dubbed the Accountability Act, provides a tax credit for parents to move their children out of the worst public schools in the state — provided a private or non-failing public school wants to accept them, which the bill doesn’t require.
“How do we know private schools will take (the) kids?” said Morgan County Schools Superintendent Bill Hopkins Jr. His district doesn’t have any schools designated as failing, but that could change year-to-year, he said. He also wonders about private schools not having the same standards as public schools.
“How do we know that a student that leaves a low-performing pubic school is going to a high-performing private school?” he asked.
Even if Hopkins wanted to take in students from other systems, he isn’t sure he could.
“Some of the schools in our district are at capacity,” he said. “What do we do then?”
For now, the bill remains in legal limbo. The Alabama Education Association filed a lawsuit in a Montgomery County court, arguing the Legislature violated its rules and the state’s open meetings law when it added the tax-credit language. A judge stopped Gov. Robert Bentley from signing the bill last week and set a hearing for later this week. The GOP leadership has appealed to the state Supreme Court and asked for an expedited ruling.
Florence City Schools Superintendent Janet Womack campaigned for the bill in its original form, before a conference committee added the failing-school and tax-credit language.
“It started as a very solid bill,” she said. “Now, they’ve just opened up the door to so many implications that are not clear cut.”
Democrats argue that, under the bill, low-income students will still be trapped in poor-performing schools.
In Montgomery, all but one junior high school is on the failing list, and it houses a magnet program to which students must apply.
“Obviously, it can’t absorb them all,” said Charlotte Meadows, a former Montgomery Public Schools board member, about the one non-failing junior high and where students looking for a public school option in the city would go.
Alabama House Democrats stood together last week to decry the bill, and Rep. Johnny Mack Morrow, D-Red Bay, said he spoke to a private school leader about it.
“He said that this bill will let private schools recruit the best athletes and the best students,” Morrow said.
“It’s not the kids in the rural areas who will get these scholarships. It’s going to be the kids who can play football, basketball and baseball ... and maybe some of the kids with high SAT scores.”
The Alabama High School Athletics Association said last week the bill’s passage won’t impact its rules about transfers and eligibility.
Students who transfer to either a public or private school would lose a year of athletic eligibility, Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh’s office said.
Some critics have gone so far as calling the bill classist and racist.
“It will put poor whites and poor blacks in one school and put rich whites and good black athletes in the best schools,” said Rep. Daniel Bowman, D-Sulligent.
Marsh, R-Anniston, considered the bill’s mastermind, rejected that assessment.
“Most of these troubled, failing systems, I will guarantee you, are high-minority,” Marsh said.
“This will give those students a chance to leave a majority-minority school and go to a school that is most likely a high percentage of white students. ... How can you call that racist?”
D’Linell Finley, a political science professor in Montgomery, said some people have an issue with the tax credit being available to parents whose children have never been to public school.
“That is why some of the black legislators have called this bill racist,” he said.
Marsh defended the tax credit for those who currently pay private-school tuition.
“I have parents in Anniston that have put their kids in private school for the last several years that forgo vacations and other things in life — a nicer car, a newer home — because they care about their kids’ education and they put that as a priority,” he said.
“Why shouldn’t they benefit like anybody else? Don’t penalize people who are already making sacrifices because they care about their kids.”
Those families would have to live in a “failing” public school zone to qualify for the tax credit.
Republicans have been accused of letting lobbyists write the bill for them, but Marsh and Bentley have said no lobbyists were involved in its creation.
When asked why wording in the bill is similar to model legislation backed by the American Legislative Exchange Council, which advocates “limited government, free markets, federalism and individual liberty,” Marsh’s office said it’s possible the state office that writes lawmakers’ bills used some of ALEC’s wording found online.
Marsh said the idea of providing tax credits to parents has been kicking around the Legislature for several years.
StudentsFirst, a national education advocacy group founded by former Washington, D.C., public school chancellor Michelle Rhee, has advocated tax credits or vouchers and scholarships to help students get out of failing schools. But Charlotte Meadows, StudentsFirst’s outreach director in Alabama, said the group wasn’t directly involved in adding tax credits to HB84.
“I wish I could say ‘yes’ and you’d give me the credit for it,” she said.
Meadows said some parents can’t or won’t take advantage of the tax credits in order to get their children into better schools, but many will.
“I think just because someone doesn’t take advantage of an opportunity doesn’t mean that opportunity shouldn’t be there,” she said.
Mary Sell can be reached at email@example.com.
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