A bill that would direct money from Alabama’s Education Trust Fund to fund student’s choice of public, private or homeschool advanced out of the Senate Education Policy committee on Wednesday.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, would create Education Savings Accounts that would provide parents access to funds equivalent to the amount the state spends funding each public school student. It passed committee by voice vote with five yeses, three nos and two abstentions.
Public education officials lined up Wednesday to state their opposition to the bill.
School Superintendents of Alabama Executive Director Ryan Hollingsworth gave an illustration of how the bill could have unintended consequences, stating that it does not hold private schools to the same standards as public schools.
“Let’s say I have two kids, so I get two debit cards,” Hollingsworth said. “That’s $13,000. And my friend also has two kids so he get’s two debit cards. We both decide to open church schools since there’s no regulation of church schools. I teach yours, you teach mine, we pay each other, we’ve both made $13,000.”
Alabama Education Association Assistant Director Ashley McLain said the expenditure is more detrimental to the ETF than eliminating grocery sales tax.
“Year after year I come up here, and just about every session I can remember there’s at least one bill filed to remove taxes on groceries,” McLain said. “And year after year you realize the importance of protecting and maintaining that funding, you realize how important it is to our schools and students. But in one fell swoop, this removes more money than eliminating grocery tax would. In the joint budget hearings, both budget chairs and the state finance director talked about the importance of being conservative with your budgeting because this unprecedented growth that we’ve seen is not sustainable, and it will not continue.”
Sen. Kirk Hatcher, D-Montgomery, told Marsh if “you’re seeking to dismantle public education, just do it.”
“Don’t do it with this notion of helping people when it will absolutely decapitate public education,” Hatcher said.
Sen. Vivian Figures said the Legislature needs to use the money to properly fund public education instead of rerouting funds.
“We have never truly funded public education in the state of Alabama,” Figures said. “I just don’t know why we won’t use our resources and our political will to make those who are in charge of the public school system in Alabama accountable.”
Opponents said the bill would not even lead to improved achievement for Alabama students, which Marsh identified as his purpose behind the bill.
“If we’re not perceived by those outside of the state of Alabama that we’re trying to solve this problem and that Alabama assumes that 50th is good enough, what are we doing for our children?” Marsh asked. He also said the bill emphasizes the need for parental involvement in education.
John Wilson, CFO for Baldwin County Schools, questioned the financial sensibility of the bill.
“Please think through the long-term implications,” Wilson said “ These are not the actions of fiscal conservatives.”
He also called on lawmakers to “call it what it is — a tax refund for private school parents.”
Shannon Colley, immediate past president of the Alabama Association of School Boards, called it “a social program for wealthy families.”
Alabama Superintendent Eric Mackey said the State Board of Education is “going to do what the Legislature challenges us to do,” but expressed concern over diverting funds to homeschools.
“There are a lot of concerns about homeschoolers being able to get it,” Mackey said. “I’m not calling for the accountability of homeschool. But most states require homeschoolers to register with the state, and they do home visits. That’s the minimum that most states require. If we start giving homeschoolers state money, there’s got to be state accountability.”
The bill does not require a participating school or provider to “alter its creed, practices, admission policy, tuition, fees, hiring policy, or curriculum in order to accept eligible recipients.” It also stipulates that “education service providers shall be given maximum freedom to provide for the educational needs of participating students without governmental control.”
The bill now moves to the full Senate for consideration.