By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
House Bill 658 sponsored by Representative Jim Carns (R) from Vestavia began as a simple clarification by the House that school boards do not have to grant transfers from failing schools if they do not want them. That bill which was advocated by Representatives Carns and Paul DeMarco (R) came back to the Alabama House from the Senate with many new provisions added by Senate Pro Tem Del Marsh (R) from Anniston greatly changing the Alabama Accountability Act.
The Senate added over a dozen changes to the Alabama Accountability Act that were so lengthy they prepared a two page hand out to attempt to explain all of them.
First the failing school that loses a transferee gets 20% of the money that they would have gotten if that student had actually enrolled in the bad school.
Second a disabled transferee is entitled to all the accommodations that he entitled to under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
Families of students who transfer are responsible for their own costs of transportation except when that transfer is within a school system. That avoids a situation where school buses have to drive to other school districts to pick up transfers from that other system.
The amount of tax credits that the state will give donors to scholarship granting organizations (SGOs) is capped at $25 million annually. The donor however will be able to take 100% of the amount that they donate to an SGO off of their taxes as long as that credit does not exceed 50% of their total state tax liability. Donors may not designate which student(s) receive his or her donation.
If the SGOs have left over funds on September 15th of each year that money will be made available to low income students attending a qualifying school even if the student does not live in a home that is assigned to a failing school.
HB 658 also changes the definition of a failing school. Instead of the Accountability Act applying to the worst 10% of Alabama public schools now it applies to only the bottom 6%. The State Superintendent of Education can however designate any school as a failure at his or her discretion.
No school can be compelled to take transfers and the bill authorizes a school or a school system to develop non-discriminatory terms and conditions for handling transfer requests. The school is still obligated to follow court ordered terms enforcing desegregation.
It also mandates that schools seeking flexibility contracts must be for academic rigor and that those plans must not violate the privacy rights of students or school employees.
The Alabama High School Athletic Association remains the ultimate authority on student athletic eligibility rules and HB 658 and the Alabama Accountability Act do nothing to change those rules or that authority.
The new provisions are retroactive to March 14, 2013
Rep. Patricia Todd (D) from Birmingham said on the House floor, “We have never done anything to help failing schools.”
Rep. Jim Carns (R)f from Vestavia said that the Alabama Accountability Act will provide school boards with a powerful incentive to turn them around
Todd said, “The people that drafted this bill do not work with poor families.” Todd doubted that the Alabama Accountability Act would help many students unless they were good at basketball.
Rep. Oliver Robinson (D) from Birmingham said, “Somebody came up with an idea and that idea hasn’t been proven in any state that it works yet. You have the votes so we are going to sit back and watch this experiment.”
Rep. Carns said, “We are setting up a $25 million scholarship pool to help kids got out of failing schools. That is not a fix all but if it helps ten kids it is worth it.”
Rep. Robinson said, “Families in my district can’t come up with the $4500 to go along with the $3500 to take the scholarship. 99% of the people in my district is not as fortunate as I am.”
Carns said that the Department of Revenue’s current interpretation of the Accountability Act is that a kid already in private school can not get the tax credit
Rep. Charles Newton (D) from Greenville said, “We are giving up on failing schools.” Newton said that you don’t fix failing public schools by taking away students from those schools. Money is not the only answer, but that could be part of a plan to turn around failing schools. Newton said, “It (the AL Accountability Act) will help some children which is good, but it is not enough to fix failing schools.”
Rep. Carns said, “I hope this will help 100s of kids then thousands and then tens of thousands.”
Rep. Elaine Beeche (D) from Chatom said, “I don’t trust local school boards because I used to be on a local school board.” She accused Leroy high school of recruiting athletes and said that the Alabama Accountability Act only made it easier for schools to recruit athletes. “It is wrong to allow these corporations to get a 100% tax credit.” “I still don’t trust local school boards and I probably have the worst in the state.”
Carns said that schools can choose to take or not to take a student on an individual basis.
Rep. Merika Coleman-Evans (D) from Midfield said to help failing schools you have to give them the resources, highly qualified teachers, and after school programs that include the parents.
Alabama House Minority Leader Craig Ford (D) from Gadsden said that the Alabama Accountability Act could cost the Alabama Education Trustfund $60 million to $300 million based on their estimates, though he acknowledged that the Republicans’ estimates were less.
The motion to cloture debate passed 64 to 39.
The motion for final passage and concur with the Senate’s version of HB658 passed by a 61 to 41 margin. The bill now goes to Alabama Governor Robert Bentley (R) for his signature.