Charter school, voucher bills get through Alabama Legislature

Goals outlined by Gov. Kay Ivey reached, but bills less dramatic than hoped or feared

By: - June 8, 2023 6:59 am

The chamber of the Alabama House of Representatives on Tuesday, June 6, 2023 in Montgomery, Ala. (Stew Milne for Alabama Reflector)

Alabama’s legislative session had numerous proposals for expanding the ways that students could access education, but only a few bills made it all the way to the end.

Legislation that changed the governance of the charter school commission and expanded the Alabama Accountability Act made it through this session. Other bills, including one that would have provided $6,900 education savings accounts to households, did not make it to the finish line this year.

Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, the chair of the House Education Policy Committee and a longtime proponent of charter schools, said she wants to work on sending local money to charter schools next year.

A woman with her arms folded smiles as she speaks to a colleague on the floor of the Alabama House of Representatives.
Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, chair of the House Education Policy Committee, speaks with a colleague prior to the start of a session of the Alabama House of Representatives on Tuesday, March 14, 2023. (Stew Milne for Alabama Reflector)

“Those are local students and their families are paying those local dollars and if they choose to put them in a charter school that is also a public school, I just believe those dollars should follow them,” she said. 

Collins sponsored and cosponsored multiple bills related to school vouchers and charter schools this year. In Gov. Kay Ivey’s State of the State speech in March, the governor called for changes to the Alabama Charter School Commission governance. 

Collins’ bill that made those changes passed this session. The bill made numerous changes to charter schools and the commission. The changes included allowing some charter schools to enroll students based on geographic preference; extending the length of the terms of those serving on the charter school commission and providing the commission with staff.

“I was very pleased that we were able to get the governance changes that we needed in the charter school and hope that that moves us towards maybe growing some of our charters around the state, having more choices there available,” she said.

Emily Schultz with Alabama Families for Great Schools, a pro-charter organization, said Wednesday afternoon that they were “grateful” for passage of the bill and additional resources for charter schools.

Despite a lot of conversation around charter schools near the beginning of the session, the “school choice” legislation this session mostly took the form of vouchers and education savings accounts (ESAs). 

The expansion to the Alabama Accountability Act would more than double the schools identified and raise the income threshold for families to participate above the median income level.

Gina Maiola, a spokeswoman for Ivey, said in a statement Wednesday that the Accountability Act and charter school changes were both priorities for her.

“The governor looks forward to putting pen to paper on both of these,” the statement said.

Looking to 2024

House Ways and Means Education Committee Chair Danny Garrett, R-Trussville, listens during a session of the Alabama House of Representatives on Tuesday, March 14, 2023. (Stew Milne for Alabama Reflector)

House Ways and Means Education Committee Chair Danny Garrett, R-Trussville, said legislators are exploring a lot of questions around charter schools and ESAs that could inform later sessions. He said he learned that there are not many ESAs in the country, and he thinks accountability measures may be part of that.

“That’s what most legislation was,” he said. “What the interesting thing is, I think a lot of people around the country, but I think in Alabama as well, are really not totally up to speed on what these school choice bills will do. My information is and from the research I’ve done is there’s only 100,000 education savings account in the entire country.” 

Looking at the next session, Garrett said lawmakers may return to HB334, cosponsored with Collins, which would have created scholarship funds for students with individualized education plans, such as special education students or a student with a disabilities, as well as children of veterans; former foster children and homeless children. The scholarships would have been used at private schools.

Garrett also said he wanted to revive HB442, also cosponsored with Collins, which would provide scholarships to some students on the condition that they or their parent provide a portfolio outlining their academic opportunities and achievements under the program to a manager each year. The legislation was modeled off a Utah bill.

HB 334 passed the House but did not come to a vote in the Senate. HB 442, introduced late in the session, did not come out of committee.

Garrett said that next year, he plans to do more work providing more information about HB334, which some senators felt overlapped with the expansion of the Accountability Act. 

“I think that Utah approach was just something that I thought would be a good way to, you know, test the waters,” he said.

One of the more high-profile bills that was filed this session was a voucher bill, SB202, filed by Sen. Larry Stutts, R-Tuscumbia, which would have provided the money from the state Foundation Program for each student each year ($6,900 for the 2024-2025 school year).

While the bill was discussed even before the session, it was not formally filed until April 11, which Garrett said was late for a bill of that magnitude. Garrett said he had questions about how many ESAs were going to come from the bill as the amount was high.

Earlier in the session, Vic Wilson, executive director of the Council for Leaders in Alabama Schools, had concerns about money leaving public schools and a lack of accountability.

“Bills like that, because you had kind of a 200,000 foot picture of what it was going to do, but there was not a lot of depth, not detail available,” Garrett said. “And, a bill like that needs to have a lot of education. You can’t just muscle that through.”

Stutts was not available for comment Wednesday.

Garrett said the charter school and ESA conversation was one they have to be “pragmatic” in doing.

“I think that we’ve got to be careful that we know what we’re getting into and in the process we don’t damage and destroy public schools because we’ve got some public schools that are underperforming, that we’re putting a lot of funding into a lot of attention into,” he said. 

House Minority Leader Rep. Anthony Daniels, D-Huntsville, said that he is not opposed to charter schools, but said legislators need to understand their effect.

“From a budget perspective, you got to figure out what’s going to have significant impact, immediate impact on our state, and so sometimes you have to prioritize,” he said.

He said he has not been part of the “fact finding” for the charter schools bills for next session, but he thinks education has a funding problem, and he wants to put more money towards pre-kindergarten.

“We have to make certain that the investments that we’re yielding the results,” he said.

Where Ivey’s charter school call ended up

Gov. Kay Ivey called for “meaningful discussions about school choice” in her inaugural address in January, and laid out more specific proposals in her State of the State. Here’s how they played out.

From Ivey’s State of the State Address, March 7, 2023

As I laid out my vision for these next four years during my inaugural address, I chose to speak on the need to improve school choice in Alabama. In fact, I was probably the only Alabama  governor to ever do so in an inaugural address.  

It’s important we continue to have meaningful discussions on school choice. That must begin with improving the school choice we already have: Our charter school options and the Alabama Accountability Act. 

(The above section was addressed by SB263, sponsored by Sen. Donnie Chesteen, R-Geneva, which expanded the Alabama Accountability Act, HB363, sponsored by Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, which overhauled charter school governance.)

I am proposing we provide startup funds for Charter Schools and make needed reforms to the  governance of the Charter School Commission in order to create better accountability. These actions will allow more charter schools to form and to ensure high quality education and  ultimately…create more choices for parents.

(This section was also included in Collins’s bill by changing the commission. In addition, the budget includes $2,000,000 for “current units” which is defined in the bill as “The above appropriation includes funds for start-up and/or conversion of public charter schools which shall be funded at Foundation Program cost per
unit in the same manner as other public K-12 schools.”)

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Jemma Stephenson
Jemma Stephenson

Jemma Stephenson covers education as a reporter for the Alabama Reflector. She previously worked at the Montgomery Advertiser and graduated from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.