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Governor signs controversial education bill

Gov. Robert Bentley signed the controversial School Accountability Act into law on Thursday once a court-ordered injunction barring its signing had been lifted.
The Alabama Supreme Court lifted the injunction on House Bill 84 that was put into place by a Montgomery circuit judge stating since the bill had yet to be signed into law, it was too soon to make a ruling on the legal implications of how the bill was passed.
The bill was originally set to be signed the afternoon of March 5 but the injunction was put in place that same morning following a lawsuit filed by the Alabama Education Association and a public outcry from many officials who claimed the bill will negatively impact Alabama’s public schools.
“Some concerns have been raised regarding the impact of this legislation,” Bentley said.
“The Department of Revenue and the State Department of Education are reviewing this bill and can develop responsible rules and regulations to address various concerns.  The most important thing right now is to make sure our schools, our families and our children have the tools they need.  This bill gives them that flexibility.”
Officials said the original intent of the bill was to allow school systems the flexibility to build their own school calendars and to have more flexibility in the kind of instructors who could teach certain types of career-oriented courses.
However, officials said when the original bill passed from the House to the Senate for approval on Feb. 28, changes were made to the bill forcing a conference committee to be formed to mediate those changes.
Rep. Johnny Mack Morrow (D-Red Bay) said once the bill came back from the conference committee, 20 pages had been added that “completely changed the scope of the bill.”
“When the conference committee met, the Republicans immediately called the meeting into recess and went back into a closed room,” Morrow said following last week’s injunction.
“When they returned, they brought with them a bill no one but them had seen before.
“The original version of this bill was meant to allow school systems to seek waivers from state statutes and laws. But the version of the bill that passed last week went far beyond that and included new spending measures and tax cuts designed to filter public education funds into private schools.”
House Minority Leader Rep. Craig Ford (D-Gadsden) said the most notable changes in the new version of the bill included two new provisions: the creation of a tax credit to help families with children in failing schools pay for private school education – a credit Ford estimated to come out to around $3,500 per child; and the creation of a scholarship program, capped at $25 million, designed to help families who still could not afford private school tuition even with the help of a tax credit since officials have determined the cheapest private school tuition in Alabama starts at $4,000.
“But here’s the thing, not only is this not enough to send a child to a private school, but every dollar devoted to these tax credits and the scholarship program is taken out of the education budget, meaning our already cash-strapped schools will be facing major budget cuts starting this year,” Ford said.
“But it goes beyond that. Schools receive funding based on the number of students who attend, so if a failing school has a mass exodus or even a sizeable exodus of students, that school will lose even more funding.
“That means these schools, which are already considered failing, will have to layoff teachers and support personnel, cut back funding or eliminate entirely extracurricular programs like athletics, and cut funding for textbooks, computers, and field trips. Now how is that supposed to help a failing school?”
Morrow said as concerned as he was with the content of the bill, he was equally as concerned with the way the bill was passed, which was the basis for the AEA lawsuit that had the signing temporarily barred last week.
“When the revised bill came out of the conference committee, it went back to the House and Senate, where the rules limited debate to only one hour,” Morrow said.
“After that, it passed with less than half the elected members of the House voting in favor of it.
“Gov. Bentley and the Republican leaders in the legislature intentionally kept their own education experts and advisors in the dark, causing the state school superintendent, Dr. Tommy Bice, and the Association of School Boards to immediately pull back their support of the bill.”
On March 5, the Alabama Department of Education issued a press release with their analysis of the bill up to that point and the concerns they had about passing the bill without any further amendments.
Some of their concerns included: the definition of a failing school and what criteria went in to determining if a school was “failing”; specifying that if a child wanted to transfer to a non-failing school that every effort be made to move the child to a non-failing school within the same school district to cut down on transportation costs since state school transportation is already underfunded by $52 million; a set criteria for participating non-public (or private) schools; how to fund special education since the current bill requires that for any student identified as needing special education services that those services remain the responsibility of the original local school system even though the child no longer attends that system, which would mean the local school system would receive no federal child count funding under IDEA, nor would it receive state funding meaning local school systems would have to spend local revenue to support a student who no longer attends the local school system; effects on student testing; and effects to the Education Trust Fund (ETF).
Republican leaders, including Bentley, maintain the bill will actually help schools in the long run and force those schools who are deemed as “failing” to fix certain problems and provide a better education.
“For the first time ever, we’re giving all public schools the flexibility they need to better serve their students,” Bentley said.
“Every school can now develop new ideas that come from their local teachers and their local principals and then put those ideas into practice. Local educators deserve the freedom and opportunity to make their schools better. That’s what this legislation provides.
“As promised, this bill gives flexibility without infringing on the rights and responsibilities of our classroom teachers. This bill shows that we trust our teachers to innovate and to develop new programs to reach our children. And this bill shows families that we’re committed to making sure their children have access to a quality education.
“This also gives flexibility to children and parents by providing new options for students who are stuck in persistently low-performing schools.
“All children deserve access to a quality education, no matter where they live. This provides a new option to help children receive the best education possible.”
State Democrats said they will continue to fight against this legislation they believe has set the state back many years.
“I am deeply disappointed that the governor signed this bill as is without any executive amendments,” House Minority Leader Craig Ford said.
“This new law will devastate our schools and cut hundreds of millions of dollars from the state’s education budget. But the legal challenges will continue, and Democrats will continue our fight to repeal this disastrous law.”