The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

State and Nation

March 20, 2014

House approves changes to failing school law

— MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — The Alabama House late Wednesday approved alterations to a GOP-championed program that provides scholarships and tax credits to help move students from failing public schools to private ones.

The existing Alabama Accountability Act provides tax credits estimated at $3,500-per-year that families zoned for failing schools can use to help pay tuition at a private school. The program also gives tax credits for donations to scholarship programs that help bridge the gulf between the $3,500 and private school tuition.

The bill approved Wednesday night increases the tax break that individuals get for scholarship donations and changes when leftover scholarship money can be given to low- and middle-income families not zoned for a failing school. It also alters the definition of a failing public school.

Lawmakers approved the bill in a 63-39 vote that split largely along party lines, mirroring the partisan divisions that occurred last year when the program was first approved. The bill now goes to the Alabama Senate.

Rep. Chad Fincher, the sponsor of the original law, said the program so far has awarded more than 1,000 scholarships, and 88 private schools across the state have signed on to participate.

The bill seeks to do away with the $7,500 cap on the tax credit that individuals could get for contributions to the scholarship program. Fincher believes the change would encourage individuals to donate and help them reach the cumulative $25 million cap on the tax credits each year.

The bill also would change the date, from Sept. 15 to May 15, for when leftover scholarship funds could go to middle- and low-income students who are not currently zoned for a private school. Fincher said the current Sept. 15 deadline is too late.

"Schools can't make plans. Parents can't make plans," Fincher said.

Fincher said families at failing schools would have exclusive access to the scholarship funds until May 15 to cover tuition for the upcoming school year. After that, money would go to parents making less than 150 percent of the state's median household income, or about $64,000, no matter where their children have been enrolled.

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