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ALABAMA tax credits bill signed: GOP legislators say further adjustments to law will be made through regulations

Gov. Robert BentleyGov. Robert Bentley signed a controversial bill Thursday morning that would allow families of students in failing schools to claim tax credits if they transfer to a private school or to a non-failing public school.

The governor said at a news conference that he hoped the legislation would encourage all schools in the state to work toward improvements and that he believed any issues emerging from the bill could be addressed through regulations developed by the Alabama State Department of Education and the Department of Revenue.

“I think it’s a great bill,” Bentley said. “Does it have some problems with it? Sure. All bills have problems. But we’ll work through that.”

Bentley’s move came a day after the Alabama Supreme Court dismissed a lawsuit brought by the Alabama Education Association against the legislation, charging lawmakers violated their rules and the state’s Open Meetings Act in the passage of the legislation.

Republican lawmakers introduced the tax credits into legislation initially written to give schools the ability to apply for waivers from certain state laws dealing with education during a Feb. 28 conference committee. It passed amid angry scenes in the state Senate.

The court said it could not adjudicate legislative rule-making.

Bentley added later that “anything (the Legislature) wants to do to improve this bill, I’m for it.” GOP legislative leaders introduced a bill Thursday that Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, described as a “vehicle” to address any changes to the law that could not be addressed through regulation. But Marsh and other leaders said they did not expect further regulation to be necessary.

“If something were to come up, we’ll address it,” Marsh said. “But we don’t anticipate that. We think it can be done through regulation.”

Bentley, Marsh and House Speaker Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, all said they looked forward to working with state Superintendent Tommy Bice on developing regulations for the bill.

Erica Pippens, a spokeswoman for the Alabama State Department of Education, said Thursday afternoon that the superintendent would not have any comment.

Democrats criticized the bill, the way it was passed and the lack of consultation with educators over the measure. Senate Minority Leader Vivian Davis Figures, D-Mobile, said it was a “sad day” for the state.

“We had a bill passed without affected entities … involved in that process,” she said.

House Minority Leader Craig Ford, D-Gadsden, said in a statement that he was “deeply disappointed” the legislation was signed without any amendments.

“This new law will devastate our schools and cut hundreds of millions of dollars from the state’s education budget,” the statement said. “But the legal challenges will continue, and Democrats will continue our fight to repeal this disastrous law.”

The bill also allows school districts to apply for waivers from certain state education laws, such as those governing teacher certification. Republican lawmakers tended to downplay the tax credit portion of the bill at news conferences Thursday, while talking up the flexibility portions.

“There’s no excuse now for a failing school to fail,” said Rep. Chad Fincher, R-Semmes, the sponsor of the legislation. “They have every opportunity they can to achieve, to improve their results and to make a difference.”

The bill also allows individuals and companies to deduct contributions made to “scholarship granting organizations” (SGOs) from their income taxes. SGOs are entities that provide scholarships for attending non-public schools. Those contributions are capped at $25 million a year; there is no cap on the credits families of students in failing schools can take.

The credit — 80 percent of the cost of educating a student — would have been worth $3,553 per student in the 2011-12 school year, according to ALSDE.

The School Superintendents of Alabama (SSA) has estimated the bill will cost between $50 million and $125 million a year; the Alabama Association of School Boards (AASB) has estimated the cost at $59 million to $367 million, depending on the scope and use of the credit. Marsh said the Education Trust Fund chairs had budgeted “$60 to $70 million” for the costs of the program.

The legislation defines a “failing school” as one designated as such by the state superintendent; one that receives an “F” or three straight “D’s” on a school grading system under development by ALSDE; or one that is in the bottom 10 percent of testing scores around the state. The SSA has estimated that will mean at least 150 schools around the state will always be listed as failing.

“I think that is one of the issues the Department of Education will have to look at,” Bentley said. “If there are problems with this bill that cannot be addressed by regulations, the Legislature can come back and remedy that.”

Marsh also said that would be looked at.

“”It is not our intent to always have 10 percent of our schools at failing status,” he said.

The legislation Marsh filed as a “vehicle” for statutory changes reflects a concern of Rep. Paul DeMarco, R-Homewood, who sought language that would prevent schools from being forced to enroll students. DeMarco said the bill would “make the issue clear,” saying regulation would not be enough.

“It makes clear the intent of the legislation that local schools have local control,” he said.

Source: Montgomery Advertiser – by Brian Lyman

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This entry was posted on March 15, 2013 by in Alabama, Charter Schools, Reform, School choice and tagged , , .

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