In Alabama’s 2023 Legislative Session, the journey of a school choice bill, sponsored by Sen. Larry Stutts, R-Sheffield, captured significant attention before stalling amidst a complex legislative process. Initially debated in the Senate Education Policy Committee, the bill faced an unexpected detour.
“After a lengthy public hearing on the bill, Stutts was told the legislation would have to move to the Education Budget committee, before coming back again to Policy—a circuitous route before it would even have a chance of reaching the full Senate,” reports indicated.
The public hearings attracted strong opinions from various stakeholders. Private school administrators and the Eagle Forum were among the vocal supporters, whereas opposition emerged from public school administrators and the Alabama Education Association, who argued that the bill lacked accountability and posed a risk to public school funding.
In the midst of this debate, Alabama GOP Chairman John Wahl expressed the party’s viewpoint to APR: “The question is becoming is the AEA and NEA at conflict with parents, and the idea of parental rights in our education system,” he said.
Wahl highlighted a shift in the narrative around school choice, with advocates now framing voucher expansion as a solution to what they see as “woke indoctrination” and the limitations of government-run education.
Originally aimed at helping low-income families and students with disabilities, the scope of school choice programs has expanded. The recent proposals in Alabama, however, have been criticized for potentially benefiting wealthier families, with Democrats and teachers’ unions across the country labeling the vouchers as unnecessary handouts. The proposals also faced skepticism from some Republicans, particularly those representing areas with fewer private schools.
David Bronner, CEO of the Retirement Systems of Alabama, raised financial concerns about the bill’s implications. He critiqued the potential financial impact, noting: “This $657 million potential cost to public education would be on top of tax cuts from the 2022 and 2023 legislative sessions that lowered revenue by $160 million and $363 million respectively, on an ongoing annual basis.”
Despite these challenges at the state level, the national landscape shows a different picture. In 2023, a record 20 states moved towards expanding school choice, encompassing a variety of educational options. These programs typically involve vouchers, or state-funded savings accounts, allowing public funding to be used for private schooling.
After the session in 2023, Gov. Kay Ivey expressed her support for a comprehensive package in 2024.
“My goal is for Alabama to be the most school choice-friendly state in the nation,” Ivey said. “I want us to have lots of school choices for our parents to choose from. We are working now, already, now, on a bill, an ESA bill, an education savings account bill, to present to the Legislature in the next session and I’m very optimistic that will pass.”
“But, it is very important for our parents to have choices of where to send their children for school,” Ivey continued. “Whether it’s public, private, home-schooled or whatever. But the goal is to get our children a quality education.”
However, this push has not been without controversy. Critics view voucher programs as part of a larger agenda to defund and privatize public education. This includes fostering distrust in public schools and targeting educators.
As the 2024 Legislative Session approaches, proponents of school choice in Alabama are gearing up for another push, with the focus remaining on the size and scope of the proposed programs in question. The ongoing debate reflects a complex balance between expanding educational choices and preserving the integrity of public education.