Alabama Accountability Act changes approved by House committee

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Rep. Chad Fincher, R-Semmes

Rep. Chad Fincher, R-Semmes

The House Education Policy committee Wednesday approved several changes to the Alabama Accountability Act, the controversial 2013 bill allowing students in failing schools to claim tax credits for use toward private school tuition.

The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Chad Fincher, R-Semmes, lifts the individual tax credit cap on contributions made to scholarship granting organizations and moves the date for dispersal of leftover funds to nonfailing school students from September 15 to May 15.

An amendment offered by Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur and approved by the committee also changes the definition of failing schools. Currently under the law, a failing school is defined as one that is persistently low-performing under U.S. Department of Education guidelines, is designated as a failing school by the State Superintendent or has been listed in the lowest six percent of standardized assessment for three of the previous six years. Collins’ amendment changes the last criteria to two out of the previous four years.

It was unclear what impact the failing school change would have on the state’s failing schools list. The Alabama State Department of Education Wednesday said it needed time to study the change. Collins said after the meeting she believed the new definition would better reflect schools that are improving. The new definition would last until 2017, when a school grading system under development by the Department of Education would be implemented.

The lifting of the cap and the new date for the release of funds consumed most of the energy at the hearing on Fincher’s bill. Currently, individuals who make donations to scholarship granting organizations (SGOs), aimed at helping qualifying students pay the cost of tuition, can deduct up to 50 percent of their contribution, to a maximum of $7,500. Fincher’s bill eliminates that cap.

The bill would keep the $25 million aggregate cap on donations made out of the Education Trust Fund.

“I want to hit that $25 million cap every single year,” Fincher said. “If we hit the $25 million cap, we can provide the most opportunity to families.”

A number of speakers working for or benefitting from the Alabama Opportunities Scholarship Fund, an SGO founded by former Gov. Bob Riley and Tampa investor John Kirtley that has raised $17.8 million, also spoke in favor of the bill. Daphne Wilson, whose household has received a scholarship from the fund, urged expansion of the program.

“Our children, my children deserve this opportunity, that’s all,” she said. ”Do not allow public education to limp into the 21th century.”

Supporters of the bill have acknowledged that the provision would most benefit the superwealthy. Susan Kennedy of the Alabama Education Association, which has sued the state multiple times over the law, said at the meeting that to have a state tax bill of more than $7,500, a household would have to make over $350,000, close to the top one percent of income earners in the country. Kennedy said the law would simply make it easier for SGOs to get money from wealthier individuals.

“They can call really, really rich people and ask really, really rich people to give more so they don’t have to make more phone calls,” she said.

Gary Crum of Ellwood Christian Academy in Selma, one of the first schools to opt into the tax credit system, spoke in support of the bill. He said removing the individual cap would not affect the school, which has about 150 students on SGO scholarships, but that moving the release date would make it easier to accommodate new students.

“A lot of planning goes into the programming over the summer,” he said. “If you’ve got to wait until Sept. 15, when a school has already started, if you get another 100 kids, you have to get another 100 desks, another 100 sets of books, hire another 20 teachers – it’s a nightmare.”

– posted by Brian Lyman

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