— 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.
"These are families that are struggling, just grasping and hoping for an opportunity," Fincher said.
Democrats argued that the program was designed to help families who already plan to send their children to a private school.
"It emphasizes more the Republican supermajority's intent about abandoning public education and investing in private schools and charter schools," House Minority Leader Craig Ford, D-Gadsden, said.
The bill also seeks to change how a failing school is defined. Current law defines a failing school as one that has been listed three or more times in the previous six years in the lowest 6 percent of schools in the state's standardized assessment in reading or math. The bill would change that to two or more times over the previous four years.
Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, said she thought a six-year period was too long and would not reward schools that had made recent improvements.
After June 1, 2017, failing schools will be determined by new school report cards issued by the state. Any school that gets an "F'' during the last three years or a "D'' for three consecutive years during the previous four years would be listed as failing.