Alabama Gov. Questions School Choice Bill He Signed, Seeks Delay, Fails
Just over two months ago, I wrote about a heavyweight fight in Alabama over a tax-credit scholarship plan that supporters said would provide new opportunities for students in struggling schools, but opponents said would do broad damage to the state's public schools and was only passed using cloak-and-dagger tactics. Students in schools rated D or F or in a federal turnaround program will be eligible for public- or private- school choice, along with those at schools with particularly poor test scores. The state set a cap of $25 million in tax credits made available for businesses and individuals wishing to provide scholarships. At the time of the political furor over the legislation, called the Alabama Accountability Act, Gov. Robert Bentley, a Republican, expressed support for the plan and eventually signed it.
But last week, Bentley announced that he was introducing an executive amendment to lawmakers that would delay the start of the scholarship program by two years. Why? As you may recall, the bill that eventually became the tax-credit plan had nothing to do with school choice at all. Instead, it allows schools to seek "flexibility" from the Alabama education department with respect to any state statute. Bentley highlighted this portion of the legislation that eventually grew into the tax-credit plan, and argued last week that schools should be given a little more time to prove that, under this newfound freedom, they could in fact improve.
"Flexibility is the part of this bill that I love," Bentley told AL.com reporter Kim Chandler. " ... We need to give schools that are having problems, that are failing or are struggling, we need to give those schools at least two years to come up with a program and a plan to try and bring themselves out of the situation that they are in."
Remember, when Bentley announced he would sign the legislation back on Feb. 28 he said, "Families will have new options if their children are stuck in failing schools." Some might question why these new options for parents yearning for better educational opportunities were so urgent in the winter, but less so now. The legislation the governor signed also makes it clear that the tax credits could be spent on private schools, yet Bentley has now expressed skepticism about that idea as well, saying that lawmakers should be pressured about whether they support tax dollars "being taken away from public schools." That's perhaps the most popular argument used by opponents of tax-credit scholarships and vouchers, so the fact that Bentley's making it now, after the signing the bill no less, is very interesting.
He also said delaying the program would help the state education budget get back on track by delaying the cost of granting the tax credits—the state has a $423 million debt to the its "rainy day" fund for education that has to be repaid by September 2015. Apparently, legislators have put the cost of the program at $40 million, roughly a tenth of the "rainy day" debt, but Bentley isn't convinced that number's right.
What's been legislators' response? Not what Bentley wanted. The House of Representatives voted 57-10 to reject his amendment, and then, anticipating his veto, overrode it by an even larger margin (lawmakers needed 53 votes to override the governor). Senate leadership said it would take up the bill, but without the support of House members Bentley's effort to delay the program appears dead, since lawmakers were voting on it May 20, the last day of the legislative session in Alabama, and senators appeared set to reject Bentley's last-day push. Democrats apparently sat out the votes, at least in the House, saying they would remain unhappy until the law is thrown out altogether.
Alabama was a bright spot for school choice advocates in a year which was not quite up to par with accomplishments they could claim in other recent state legislative sessions. If he had succeeded, Bentley's actions over the last week could have tarnished one of those bright spots for supporters of the scholarships.