MONTGOMERY — Gov. Robert Bentley said he knows he and other GOP leaders angered Democratic lawmakers and education officials when they pushed through a much-changed school flexibility act that includes tax credits to help parents get their kids out of failing schools.
But as far as burning political bridges, there will be other battles and chances for collaboration, Bentley said.
“Take away all this trust stuff, take away all these folks that are upset, I don’t care,” Bentley said Friday. “Let me tell you what I care about: I care about those children who are in failing schools and who have no way out. If we can better the lives of those children, all this other stuff, it will settle down.”
Democrats have accused Republicans of a “bait and switch” on the bill that went through multiple committee meetings and public hearings. It was to allow school districts more freedom in how they ran their individual schools and spent their money. It emerged from a committee of Republican leaders Thursday as a bill that would give parents tax credits for leaving failing schools.
State Superintendent Tommy Bice wasn’t talking Friday, but on Thursday told lawmakers the bill they passed was not the one he had originally supported.
Longtime lawmaker Rep. Marcel Black, D-Tuscumbia, said Friday that Thursday’s action in the Legislature was a “serious blow” to the trust between Republicans and Democrats.
“It’ll take some time to heal, if in fact it heals at all,” Black said.
Decatur schools Superintendent Ed Nichols said Friday he was disappointed with Republican leadership who had promised an open and transparent government when they took control two years ago.
“They’re not different; they did the exact same thing they’ve done before,” he said.
Henry Mabry, Alabama Education Association executive secretary, called the passage of the bill a “dirty trick” by Republicans. “They couldn’t get something like this passed in the light of day, so they had to do underhanded tactics to do so.”
Bentley said Friday he was approached about changes to the bill Tuesday. He said there was nothing illegal or unethical about how it was passed, but he did say it likely wouldn’t have made it through the usual committee process.
“This bill would not have passed had all the school systems, AEA and everyone known about it ... I don’t think it would have passed,” he said.
Sen. Scott Beason, R-Gardendale, said he’d been part of the group working on a revised bill for a “couple of days.”
He said that it is not unusual for conference committees to make major changes to bills.
“The people who are complaining about it know that very well,” Beason said. “The bodies get to decide, ‘Do we accept these changes or do we send it back?’ It would have been easy for the bodies to say, ‘We don’t like it.’
“We had the votes to pass the changes, and they didn’t have the votes to stop it.”
As for political fights, there will be others, Bentley said.
“This is one issue,” he said. “We’ll have another issue Tuesday, and there’ll be another one Thursday.”
Mary Sell is the Montgomery bureau chief for the TimesDaily. She can be reached at email@example.com.