The entrance to the Alabama State House in Montgomery, as seen on Jan. 24, 2023. (Brian Lyman/Alabama Reflector)
New legislators have made the future of a taxpayer-funded K-12 program of school vouchers, tax credits and charter schools uncertain in Alabama after a rocky path last legislative session.
Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, the chair of the House Education Policy committee, said last week that she’s hopeful that it would come up again this year. But she’s not sure what it would take for the bill to pass with 37 new legislators – more than a quarter of the House and Senate – starting their first terms.
“I’m going to have to get to know them a little bit better,” she said. “I’m going to have to see how they vote about some simple things.”
Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, chair of the Senate Finance and Taxation Education Committee, which oversees the education budget, said he wasn’t sure where the votes are or what the interest level would be.
“Gov. Ivey says she’s interested in the issue, so I would not be surprised to see some legislation advanced,” he said. “As far as its prospects, I think it’s too early to tell.”
Gov. Kay Ivey plans to make expansion a priority, and the idea has generally had support in the Republican legislative caucuses. But a so-called “school choice” bill failed to pass the Legislature last year.
Orr said that he does not have a bill, but he believes there will be one. Ivey said in her inaugural address on Jan. 16 that there needed to be “meaningful discussions about school choice in Alabama” and signaled support for changes to the state’s charter school laws.
Collins said that she believes more charter schools will improve public schools in the long run. But because so many lawmakers are new this session, she’s not sure what a bill would need to include or not include to pass.
“I can’t even guess right now where they’re going to be on issues like this,” she said.
One of Alabama’s proponents of such a program is no longer in office this year, after deciding not to run for reelection.
Former Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, sponsored a bill last legislative session that would have created the “Parents’ Choice Program,” allowing families to use $5,561 from public funds for private education.
Marsh was also the author of the 2013 Alabama Accountability Act, which provided students in failing public schools tax credits to use for private schools.
Alabama also allows magnet schools.
Last year, some senators were concerned about the impact on the Alabama public school system. Alabama already spends less on students than national and regional averages. According to the U.S. Census, in the 2020 fiscal year, Alabama spent $10,116 per pupil. The national average was $13,494 and the average in the South region was $10,954.
Collins said that under the current system, local dollars do not follow students to their charter schools. She hopes that future legislation would allow money to follow students and fund charters.
“If a local parent chooses to go to a local public charter school, I think those local funds should follow them,” she said. “So, I’ll be anxious to see.”
Others asked about the impact it would possibly have on rural districts. Last year, Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, had raised concerns over the impact it could have on his Black Belt district.
Singleton said Monday that he’s supportive of any avenue that provides all students with an education. But he added that places like the Black Belt have communities where public schools have consolidated into one middle or high school and struggle to fund transportation and other services. If a student leaves a public school for a charter, Singleton said, and funding for the student follows him or her out the door, the school should be provided with the resources to give remaining students a quality education.
“You got to be talking about choices to give students something that’s better than what they already have, or a system that already works,” he said.
Singleton said he wanted greater accountability and transparency from charter schools, while ensuring they operated on a level playing field, with resources available for all children to succeed. The senator noted that a charter school might be able to cut off admissions after enrolling 200 students, something public schools cannot do.
“I just want to make sure that all of the public school children are given the same affordability and ability to be able to learn as those in a charter and elsewhere,” he said.
As reported by Trish Crain at AL.com’s Education Lab, a recent report given to legislators showed that Alabama’s charter schools generally outperform local schools in rural areas but not always with metro-area schools. The report included the seven charter schools that had been authorized by the Alabama Public Charter School Commission.
Rep. Barbara Drummond, D-Mobile, the ranking minority member on the House Education Policy Committee said she would need whoever sponsors the bill to have the data that supports the proposal.
“That’s what I’ve got to see: is the data of the success, and not an opportunity for us to just take money from one and prop up another?” she said during a phone interview on Monday.
Drummond called expanding charters would be a “band-aid” until the state looked at equity funding and school resources for districts like hers with impoverished areas. said that when she looks at charter schools, she sees some with test scores at or below local school districts. Drummond said the 2019 Literacy Act, which requires students to be on reading grade level by the end of third grade, and the Numeracy Act, which provides Math Coaches to better support teachers, as ways that Alabama has made recent strides in education.
The representative also wants to make sure that children whose parents are not as engaged are also taken care of by the school system.
“What happens to those children whose parents don’t have the wherewithal to make that choice?” she said. “What happens to those children? Who will make the choices for those children?”
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