School choice bill advances after spending cap added

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Empty seats in a senate chamber.

The empty senate chamber at the Alabama State House on March 7, 2023.

Mary Scott Hodgin, WBHM

An Alabama Senate committee passed a bill this week that would give families almost $7,000 per child in taxpayer money to be used for private school tuition or home-schooling costs. It’s a change from the mixed response the measure received the first time it went before lawmakers.

“It had a pretty significant amendment,” said Todd Stacy, host of Capitol Journal on Alabama Public Television.

Stacy discussed that and other action in the legislature this week.

Change on School Choice

The PRICE Act would give parents up to $6,900 per child through education savings accounts to pay for private school tuition, textbooks, home-schooling expenses, tutoring services and extracurricular activities, including sports and arts. Some legislators initially balked at the proposal because of the estimated cost to the Education Trust Fund. The Legislative Services Agency estimated the proposal would cost about $570 million each year if 5% of eligible public school students participated.

“That obviously concerned a lot of lawmakers because that’s a lot of money,” Stacy said.

The Senate Finance and Taxation Education Committee added a $50 million annual spending cap for the first three years of the program to limit the loss to the public education budget. Committee members then voted Wednesday 12-3 to send the bill to the Senate floor Wednesday.

The Alabama proposal lacks transparency and accountability requirements contained in similar laws in other states that would reveal how students under the program are performing.

Bill sponsor Sen. Larry Stutts of Tuscumbia is not willing to budge on that issue.

“He said the ultimate accountability in his mind is the parents. He wants parents to have this choice, this freedom, free of any mandates on accountability,” Stacy said. 

Stacy noted a similar bill has been filed in the House which does include requirements to show students’ academic progress. 

“It does have those accountability measures that make mainstream school choice advocates feel a lot better about the bill,” Stacy said.

Ensuring ‘core values’ in school reading

The House Ways and Means Education committee delayed a bill Wednesday that would create a process for reviewing what students read in school to make sure they follow the state’s “core values.”

“This has to do with the state’s Literacy Task Force,” Stacy said. 

The task force is part of the 2019 Alabama Literacy Act which is an effort to reverse Alabama’s low reading test scores. The panel was charged with determining which curriculum and assessments will be used to meet the state’s reading goals. 

The bill from Republican Rep. Danny Garrett of Trussville would expand the task force from 20 to 25. 

“Also importantly, it weakens the requirement that whatever curriculum and assessment that this task force comes up with are actually adopted in schools,” Stacy said. “It really made a lot of his committee members nervous.” 

While the bill requires the task force to review curriculums to make sure they reflect the state’s “core values,” it’s not clear what that means. The bill does not define core values. 

“Some lawmakers are loath to move forward on something there’s so many questions about,” Stacy said.

Blocking Chinese property owners

The Alabama House passed a bill Wednesday after significant debate which would prevent Chinese entities and citizens from buying property in Alabama. The bill passed 73 to 23 largely along party lines, with Democrats in opposition.

Republican Rep. Scott Stadthagen of Hartselle sponsored the bill.

“He says it’s aimed at protecting Alabama land from being bought up by the Chinese Communist Party,” Stacy said. “But it goes further than that.”

Opponents expressed concerns about Chinese-owned businesses already operating in the state which employ Alabamians. One legislator questioned if the bill would run afoul of equal housing laws. 

Passage of the measure came after amendments to allow an exemption for Taiwanese citizens and to allow current Chinese owners to expand onto contiguous property.

Other action

Alabama Senate committee approves bill allowing PAC donations to political parties

Lawmakers approve bill that would allow for a new Alabama Statehouse

Alabama bill would enable review of some habitual offender sentences

Senate approves bill requiring agencies to respond to open records requests

Lawmakers pass bill allowing attorney general to redact names on professional services contracts

Includes reporting from the Associated Press

 

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