By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
MONTGOMERY—If you liked the Alabama Accountability Act then you are going to love “Switch-A-Roo-Two.”
Working with former State Representative Jay Love in his new capacity of Finance Chairman of the Business Education Alliance (BEA), Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard has prepared a bill that will create a special scholarship fund for Dual-Enrollment students who want to attend a career tech program.
Dual Enrollment programs allow high school students to take academic coursework at community colleges are common across the State in order to jump-start an early career, according to information from the Alabama Community College System website. The funding for the program envisioned by Love and Hubbard would come from the Education Trust Fund on which Love served as Chairman until he quit the position to work for the BEA, an arm of the Business Council of Alabama.
Like the first Accountability Act, the funds would come in the form of tax credits given to qualifying families and would also allow for dollar-for-dollar tax breaks for those who contributed to the program through Scholarship Granting Organizations (SGOs).
Calls to Love, State Superintendent of Education Dr. Thomas Bice and the Chancellor of the State’s Community College Dr. Mark Heinrich went unanswered. It has been leaked that both men have voiced concerns about the proposed program.
Sources inside Gov. Bentley’s inner-circle say that the Governor is not in favor of implementing any new tax credit scholarships programs. And that the governor is committed to fully fund the dual enrollment programs.
Love and Hubbard are aware of these concerns, but are undeterred in their desire to see more tax-credit based education programs.
Love was seen last week at a meeting of the House, Ways and Means Education Committee either lobbying or visiting with Chairman Rep. Bill Poole of Tuscaloosa. If Love was lobbying his former colleague that would be a blatant violation of an Alabama ethics law which states that a representative like Love is not permitted to lobby a committee he once chaired for at least one year. But, Love and Hubbard are so anxious to place Switch-A-Roo-Two on the fast track, that all semblance of decorum has been given a second seat.
One of the major elements of these programs is the establishment of Scholarship Granting Organizations (SGOs). Those who manage such programs can make millions yearly just from the fees charged by administration. One of the first to organize an SGO in Alabama is former Gov. Bob Riley. Along with his partner investment banker, John F. Kirtley of Tampa Florida, Riley founded the Opportunity Scholarship Fund, LLC. Kirtley has so successfully administered these types of funds in Florida that last year, his SGO made $6.3 million dollars according to a report in the Palm Beach Post.
Gov. Bentley told alreporter.com last week, that he never intended for anyone to use the Accountability Act to make money off the SGOs. He said that he and his staff would monitor the SGOs and would seek legislation if the SGOs were not operating properly.
Riley is also joined in his endeavor by former Bentley Finance Director, Marquita Davis.
The confluence of lobbyists and former and current lawmakers is a troubling trend in the world of SGOs.
A 2012 article in the NYT showed that in Pennsylvania the “state’s largest scholarship organizations [were] controlled by lobbyists, and they frequently ask lawmakers to help decide which schools get the money….” According to the Times, the “arrangement provides a potential opportunity for corporate donors seeking to influence legislators and also gives the lobbying firms access to both lawmakers and potential new clients.”
According to a two year study by the Atlanta-based Southern Education Foundation, a Georgia tax credit scholarship program “contains a number of troubling features. It lacks transparency regarding contributors, beneficiaries, and the criteria by which scholarships are awarded or even the size and number of scholarships awarded.”
These problems have been seen as a potential for abuse of the SGOs at the expense of taxpayer dollars and public education. These same complaints can easily be made against Alabama’s current law. The Accountability Act was a hastily passed law that has left many with question about it practicality.
Hubbard and Love have intentionally hidden the Switch-A-Roo-Two so as to ensure that like it’s predecessor, it will not receive a fair, public examination.