A school flexibility bill went into conference committee Thursday afternoon and came back three times longer and with a series of tax credits for families of students in failing public schools to place their kids in non-failing schools, including private ones.
The changes took place Thursday afternoon and stunned a number of lobbyists and lawmakers. The Legislature was debating the new measures Thursday afternoon.
Initially, the legislation, sponsored by Rep. Chad Fincher, R-Semmes, would allow school districts to apply for waivers from laws, such as those governing teacher certification. The bill as it emerged from the committee includes a provision that would parents of a student in a failing school to claim a tax credit equal to 80 percent of the of the cost of attendance to attend a “nonfailing public school or nonpublic school, whichever is less.”
Fincher said during the debate the tax credit would spur failing schools to make improvements.
“If they start losing students, they’re going to change what they’re doing now,” he said.
Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said the proposal would transform education in the state.
“This is a monumental move to better education in these systems,” Marsh said.
Most Democrats in the Legislature had adamantly opposed the school flexibility bill, but Republicans moved to add vastly different features to the bill after the House and Senate voted on it and a conference committee of three members of each chamber met to work out the differences.
Sen. Quinton Ross, D-Montgomery, said Republicans were disingenuous by acting like they were working through issues with the original proposal while planning to move forward with a vastly different plan. Ross said the bill would have been released sooner if the Republicans were being sincere.
“This bill could have been talked about from its inception,” Ross said.
Bedford said Republican leadership told him they had been working on it for three weeks.
Marsh said the changes originated from his discussions with senators about what they wanted in the bill.
Republicans praised the changes. Rep. Phil Williams, R-Huntsville, called it a “rescue plan for those who need rescuing the most.”
“Some are persistently locked in underperforming status,” he said.
Democrats were sharply critical of the changes and the process by which they came through, saying they opened the door to charter schools.
“This is not the bill that went into conference,” said Rep. Thomas Jackson, D-Thomasville. “This is a different bill altogether. We didn’t get a report from the conference committee. We had a whole new bill.”
Marsh said the bill prohibits charters and creates tax credits, not vouchers.
“There is nothing about student achievement in this piece of legislation,” Ross said. “Everything in this legislation has to do with money.”
Gov. Robert Bentley was expected to sign the bill tonight, if it passed.
– posted by Brian Lyman