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Tax-Credit Vouchers Pushed Through Ala. Legislature

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In a surprise move, legislators in Alabama last week pushed through a 'school flexibility' bill—which was retooled shortly before its passage—that would create a school choice program to allow families of students in failing schools to receive income tax credits to apply to any non-failing public or private school.

However, a Montgomery circuit court judge has upheld a temporary restraining order filed by the the Alabama Education Association to block the bill from being delivered to Gov. Robert J. Bentley, a Republican, who has confirmed that he plans to sign the bill into law.

The Alabama Education Association filed a lawsuit to block the bill, claiming that several legislators involved in revamping the bill violated the Open Meetings Act.

The bill began as an effort to allow school districts relief from having to comply with certain state laws, but after versions of that bill were passed in the House and Senate, the Republican-dominated conference committee dramatically revamped the bill, expanding it from nine to 27 pages and adding in language about creating a tax-credit program for students in low-performing schools to apply to non-failing public and private schools, says an article in the Montgomery Advertiser. The bill also created a program that would allow tax breaks for individuals and businesses that contribute to scholarship granting organizations that would dole out scholarships for private school tuition to qualifying students.

The move prompted chaos in the state Senate, which broke into shouting, cursing, and finger-shaking before the vote. (Click here to listen to a snippet of audio of the session courtesy of Alabama Live.) Despite the revised version of the bill losing its support from Alabama state superintendent Tommy Bice, who had backed the original school flexibility bill before the tax-credit provisions were included, the bill was approved along party lines in a vote of 51-26 in the House and 22-11 in the Senate.

State superintendent Bice is quoted as saying that the tax-credit program held "significant negative financial implications" for state schools, says the article. The financial costs of tax-credit voucher programs has been a source of dispute in other states.

The bill allows parents of students in failing schools to receive a tax break of up to 80 percent of the per-pupil cost of education to be applied to private school tuition. That breaks down to about $3,550 per year, says the Montgomery Advertiser article.

The bill defines a failing school as one that is labeled as "persistently low-performing" by the U.S. Department of Education or the state department of education, in the bottom 10 percent of public K-12 schools in state standardized tests, has received a grade of "F" or three consecutive grades of "D" under the state's school ratings, or is designated a failing school by the state superintendent.

The Alabama affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers has called the bill "a direct assault on public schools."

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