Sen. Larry Stutts, R-Tuscumbia, stands on the floor of the Alabama Senate on March 7, 2023. Legislators gathered Tuesday for the first day of the Alabama Legislature’s 2023 regular session. (Brian Lyman/Alabama Reflector)
A bill that would provide families in public schools $6,900 a year to spend at a different school passed the Senate Finance and Taxation Education committee Wednesday on a 12-3 vote, with one abstention.
SB 202, sponsored by Sen. Larry Stutts, R-Tuscumbia and called the PRICE Act would divert $864 million from the Education Trust Fund to non-religious and religious private schools, church schools, parochial schools and home-based education programs.
The funding for each student would be deposited into a personal Educational Savings Account (ESA), which would allow parents to view where the funds are being spent.
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The legislation, which had started in the Senate Education Policy committee, drew support from conservative groups and opposition from education organizations, who said the bill lacked oversight provisions and could send money to schools that would not have to meet state requirements.
Stutts said that “school choice” is a vital issue and one that’s been around for a long time, and that similar bills have been passed in other states.
“We’ve looked at models from the other sites and have tried to come up with the best bill that we could possibly come up with,” he said. “I’m not saying it’s perfect. I’m open to other suggestions as we move forward with the discussion.”
Sally Smith, executive director for the Alabama Association of School Boards, said that the Legislature also passed requirements, such as having four years of math and science. Smith said “none of those things are required” in the bill.
“If these parents want to choose things different from you that the Legislature has said is important, that’s their right, but why do we have to pay for work?” Smith said. “We don’t think school boards should be paying for that. We don’t think the public should be paying for that.”
Justin Bogie, senior director of fiscal policy at the Alabama Policy Institute, a conservative advocacy group, said tax revenue growth in the ETF would pay for the program.
“We’re really in a unique position to make this investment into education and to hopefully improve academic outcomes for students in Alabama,” he said.
Allison King, director of governmental relations at the Alabama Education Association (AEA), which represents public school teachers, said that the bill does not hold schools receiving the funds accountable and does not provide for oversight. She said that the online portal for the ESA is a “setup for fraud.”
King said that according to the bill, fraud that is not substantial or intentional, as determined by the Department of Education, would be allowed to occur.
“Nothing in this bill requires that money be spent on education at all, much less quality education,” she said.
She also said that most students who will receive these vouchers are already private school students, taxpayers will be paying tuition for students’ who already paid for tuition. She referred to sections in the bill that would allow funds to be spent on iPads, ACT and SAT prep courses, space camp and summer school programs.
Democrats on the committee also criticized the measure. Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, said that public schools barely have enough money to supply basic educational resources. He referred to an elementary school that didn’t have a “lick of band equipment.”
“And we’re about to let these folks take our money and travel around the county, play basketball, volleyball, whatever it is,” he said. “That’s ludicrous to try and sit up here to justify and feel good about a situation like that.”
Sen. Kirk Hatcher, D-Montgomery, said that there is only a limited amount of funds that can be spent on education and that he is concerned with how the state spends taxpayer dollars. He said that he did get a private education, but only because his mother, grandmother and aunt paid for it.
“If you are interested in decapitating public education, just say it, so we can deal with that,” Hatcher said.
The bill moves to the Senate.
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