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Sweeping education legislation passed

Published 6:03am Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Following a lawsuit filed by the Alabama Education Association, a Montgomery circuit judge has blocked the signing of controversial legislation that some officials claim will negatively impact Alabama’s public schools.
House Bill 84, known as the Alabama Accountability Act, was set to be signed by Gov. Robert Bentley at 4 p.m. Tuesday.
Officials said the original intent of the bill was to allow school systems the flexibility to build their own school calendars and to have more flexibility in the kind of instructors who could teach certain types of career-oriented courses.
However, officials said when the original bill passed from the House to the Senate for approval on Feb. 28, changes were made to the bill forcing a conference committee to be formed to mediate those changes.
Rep. Johnny Mack Morrow (D-Red Bay) said once the bill came back from the conference committee, 20 pages had been added that “completely changed the scope of the bill.”
“When the conference committee met, the Republicans immediately called the meeting into recess and went back into a closed room,” Morrow said.
“When they returned, they brought with them a bill no one but them had seen before.
“The original version of this bill was meant to allow school systems to seek waivers from state statutes and laws. But the version of the bill that passed last week went far beyond that and included new spending measures and tax cuts designed to filter public education funds into private schools.”
House Minority Leader Rep. Craig Ford (D-Gadsden) said the most notable changes in the new version of the bill include two new provisions: the creation of a tax credit to help families with children in failing schools pay for private school education – a credit Ford estimated to come out to around $3,500 per child; and the creation of a scholarship program, capped at $25 million, designed to help families who still could not afford private school tuition even with the help of a tax credit since officials have determined the cheapest private school tuition in Alabama starts at $4,000.
“But here’s the thing, not only is this not enough to send a child to a private school, but every dollar devoted to these tax credits and the scholarship program is taken out of the education budget, meaning our already cash-strapped schools will be facing major budget cuts starting this year,” Ford said.
“But it goes beyond that. Schools receive funding based on the number of students who attend, so if a failing school has a mass exodus or even a sizeable exodus of students, that school will lose even more funding.
“That means these schools, which are already considered failing, will have to layoff teachers and support personnel, cut back funding or eliminate entirely extracurricular programs like athletics, and cut funding for textbooks, computers, and field trips. Now how is that supposed to help a failing school?”
Morrow said as concerned as he was with the content of the bill, he was equally as concerned with the way the bill was passed.
“When the revised bill came out of the conference committee, it went back to the House and Senate, where the rules limited debate to only one hour,” Morrow said.
“After that, it passed with less than half the elected members of the House voting in favor of it.
“Gov. Bentley and the Republican leaders in the legislature intentionally kept their own education experts and advisors in the dark, causing the state school superintendent, Dr. Tommy Bice, and the Association of School Boards to immediately pull back their support of the bill.”
On Tuesday, the Alabama Department of Education issued a press release with their analysis of the bill up to that point and the concerns they had about passing the bill without any further amendments.
Some of their concerns included: the definition of a failing school and what criteria went in to determining if a school was “failing”; specifying that if a child wanted to transfer to a non-failing school that every effort be made to move the child to a non-failing school within the same school district to cut down on transportation costs since state school transportation is already underfunded by $52 million; a set criteria for participating non-public (or private) schools; how to fund special education since the current bill requires that for any student identified as needing special education services that those services remain the responsibility of the original local school system even though the child no longer attends that system, which would mean the local school system would receive no federal child count funding under IDEA, nor would it receive state funding meaning local school systems would have to spend local revenue to support a student who no longer attends the local school system; effects on student testing; and effects to the Education Trust Fund (ETF).
Republican leaders, however, maintain that the bill will actually help schools in the long run and force those schools who are deemed as “failing” to fix certain problems and provide a better education.
“This is historic education reform that will benefit students and families across the state,” Bentley said.
“Local school systems will have the flexibility to make more decisions on behalf of their students. Families will have new options if their children are stuck in failing schools. All children, regardless of their family’s income or where they live, will have the opportunity to receive a quality education.”
During a press conference Tuesday afternoon, Democratic leaders held firm in the belief that the legislation will do more harm than good.
They also promised to repeal the legislation if the court-ordered injunction is lifted and the legislation is signed into law.
“It’s not the Democrats in the Alabama legislature who are getting hurt,” Ford said. “We’re not the ones they are running over; we’re not the victims here. It’s the people of Alabama, and specifically our children who are paying the price.
“We are here today to pledge to the people of Alabama that if you elect a Democratic majority to the legislature in 2014, our first priority will be to repeal this bill.”

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