MONTGOMERY — The Alabama Department of Education on Monday released a list of nine concerns it has about the Alabama Accountability Act of 2013, an education bill lawmakers hurriedly approved last week with significant changes but no public input.
State Superintendent Tommy Bice supported the bill’s original version, which gives city and county school systems flexibility in complying with state education laws. On Thursday, the bill was changed in a conference committee and grew from nine pages to 27.
The extra pages added tax credits for parents who move their children from a failing public school. It also created a scholarship program to help parents who otherwise couldn’t afford to send their children to another school. Businesses and individuals would get tax credits for contributing scholarship money, which could pull up to $25 million a year from the Education Trust Fund.
Bice told lawmakers as they were voting Thursday that the bill hadn’t been vetted by his department and was not what he’d supported.
Republicans say the bill is groundbreaking for education in the state, giving parents a way to get their kids out of chronically failing schools. Parents can receive a tax credit of up to 80 percent of the state’s cost to educate a child if they pull their children from “failing” schools and put them in other public or private schools.
In a statement released Monday evening, the state Department of Education listed the concerns ranging from the definition of a failing school to the impact on local school systems and the state’s education budget. Bice was not available for comment.
The accountability act, originally called the school flexibility act, defines a failing school several ways.
“There are four fundamentally different criteria listed in the bill, none of which are part of the State Board of Education’s new accountability plan that advances our efforts under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act/No Child Left Behind,” the department’s statement said. “For clarity and uniformity, we would like to see this language simplified to designate the applicable schools as those identified as Priority Schools under the Alabama Accountability Plan.”
The statement goes on to say the financial impact of the act is also a concern, but the extent of that impact is not yet known.
“That exact amount is unknown because it cannot currently be calculated since we do not have an estimate of those who may choose the tax credit option,” the statement said.
“... Based on the income tax credit for individuals and corporations there is a yet-to-be-determined negative impact on the total potential income to the (Education Trust Fund). This will not only affect the K-12 budget but also the budgets of the Department of Postsecondary Education and Institutions of Higher Education.”
According to information from Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh’s office, 202 schools would be considered failing by the bill’s standards.
Gov. Robert Bentley said last week this is a good bill and one that will help children. He also said that he didn’t think it would have passed had it gone through the traditional legislative process that includes public discussion.
A spokeswoman for Bentley said Monday evening that he is aware of the Department of Education’s concerns.
“Gov. Bentley plans to sign this legislation because it provides flexibility to help failing schools improve,” Jennifer Ardis said. “It also gives parents new options if their children are stuck in failing schools. We will not tolerate failing schools, and this legislation gives the schools a new tool to help them improve. These concerns could be addressed through future policies moving forward.”
Bentley is expected to sign the bill today. Democrats in the Alabama House have called a news conference today to discuss their opposition to this bill.
Mary Sell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.