By Phillip Rawls
MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama officials are trying to figure out how much private school tax credits might cost the state if the governor is allowed to sign them into law.
In the 16 states with such tax credits or vouchers, participation ranges from a few hundred students to more than 50,000. That has Alabama officials guessing how many might participate in the state and how much the tax credits might reduce revenue for its public schools.
An opponent of the legislation, state Superintendent of Education Tommy Bice, said his department is trying to figure out the cost, and he added that the tax loss will affect not only K-12 schools, but also community colleges and universities.
A supporter, Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said the cost is worth giving students in failing public schools the option for a better education. "We are going to do all we can to give those young people an opportunity," he said.
The Republican majority in the Alabama House and Senate passed the tax credit legislation Feb. 28 over the objections of many Democrats. The state teachers' organization, the Alabama Education Association, filed suit, and a Montgomery judge temporarily blocked the governor from signing it into law. The Alabama Supreme Court is considering whether to lift the judge's order and let the governor sign the bill.
The legislation provides tax credits for parents who enroll their children in private schools rather than public schools listed as failing. Under the guidelines in the bill, at least 10 percent of Alabama's public schools — or 150 schools — will always be classified as failing. The bill also provides tax credits for individuals and businesses that contribute to scholarships programs for children who need help with tuition.
The Alliance for School Choice reports that nationwide, 148,300 students participated in some type of tax credit program and 97,252 in voucher programs in 2012-13. Vouchers are given to parents upfront, while tax credits come after parents have paid private school tuition. Some of the voucher and tax credit programs across the country are for special-needs or low-income students, while others address students in poorly performing schools, like Alabama's.
Marsh said that when Alabama's tax credit program is fully implemented, he expects about $50 million in tax credits every year based on Arizona's similar program. Arizona had about 30,000 student participating and $57 million in tax credits for the 2012-13 school year.
Marsh's $50 million estimate is equal to slightly less than 1 percent of the $5.55 billion the Legislature has appropriated for public education at all levels this year.
The Alabama Association of School Boards uses a $4,000 per-child tax credit to estimate that Alabama's program could cost $30 million if 10 percent of the students in failing schools participate. That figure rises to $300 million if 100 percent participate. But no one expects 100 percent participation in an Alabama program.
Whitney Rhoades, policy director for the school choice organization American Federation for Children, said research on Florida's scholarship program shows parents don't tend to move their children from failing schools if they are doing well. Instead, it's the parents whose children are having trouble, she said.