Accountability Act could affect local schools

Published 6:47 pm Thursday, March 7, 2013

Even though a controversial tax credit bill being delayed by court proceedings won’t affect school enrollment in Pike County, it could have an impact on the amount of money local schools receive in the future.

The bill, which started out as the School Flexibility Act and became the Alabama Accountability Act, includes tax credits to help parents take their children out of failing public schools and send them to private institutions. The bill would also provide tax credits for businesses and individuals who contribute money toward scholarships for children whose parents can’t afford private schools.

“We would not be impacted directly because we don’t have any schools that fit that [failing] category,” said Pike County Schools Superintendent Dr. Mark Bazzell. “Our biggest concern would be what impact the act would have on the bottom line of the Education Trust Fund. There are still a lot of unanswered questions, right now.”

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From a state standpoint, Republican legislative leaders are backing the bill while Democrats, the Alabama Education Association, and the state superintendent of education are opposing it.

“The issue in Pike County will be how much will local school systems have to take in a reduction of funds,” said Rep. Alan Boothe. “I personally don’t think it will affect school funding that much. Nobody knows exactly what the figure will be. There is no way to know that, but in a $6 billion budget, $25 million is not something that is insurmountable.”

Boothe said numbers from $40 million down to $10 million had been thrown around as to how much money might be used for tax credits. Boothe said it really depends on how many people with children in failing schools take advantage of the credit.

The legislation in question began as a way to provide more flexibility for city and county schools. The House and Senate passed different versions of the bill and created a conference committee to work out a compromise.

That committee was Republican-dominated, though, which eventually brought about the controversy surrounding the Alabama Accountability Act.

The committee revised the bill on a party-line vote, with four Republicans voting yes and two Democrats voting no. The House and Senate approved the revised bill that added the private school tax credit and was triple the size of the original one. Most Republicans voted yes. Most Democrats voted no.

The Alabama Education Association filed a lawsuit Monday with the belief that the Legislature violated Alabama’s open meetings law when it passed the bill. The lawsuit said the four Republicans on the conference committee worked out the tax credits in a private meeting. Attorneys for state officials named in the suit said there was no private meeting.

On Wednesday, Montgomery County Circuit Judge Charles Price issued a temporary restraining order that prevents Gov. Robert Bentley from signing the bill until a hearing on March 15. Now Republican legislative leaders are asking the Alabama Supreme Court to throw out the order, noting that they believe Price, a Democrat, is violating the separation of powers doctrine by getting involved in the legislative process before a bill becomes a law.

Troy City Schools Board of Education President Dr. Judson Edwards said that there are parts of the bill that are agreeable, but he does take some issue with the tax credit.

“I think we should have to be held responsible and accountable and be competitive with all schools,” Edwards said. “The goal is to let students get the best education available. What does concern me about the bill is that I don’t want school systems that don’t have failing schools to pay the price. I don’t want us to be cut in funding so the funds can be directed somewhere else.”

Another issue Edwards brought up is that private schools and public schools are not held to the same standards. While private schools do have standards in place, Edwards said, they are not held to the same state standards.

“There aren’t any certain benchmarks they have to hit. I think that could be something that comes up as well,” Edwards said.

The fate of the bill now lies with the Alabama Supreme Court.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.