MONTGOMERY — House and Senate education budget chairs State Rep. Danny Garrett (R-Trussville) and State Sen. Arthur Orr (R-Decatur) filed education savings account legislation called the Creating Hope and Opportunity for Our Students' Education (CHOOSE) Act on Tuesday.

Gov. Kay Ivey said the proposal is her top legislative priority in 2024.

"Passing an education savings account bill that works for families and for Alabama is my number one legislative priority, and I am proud to have our education budget chairmen, Senator Arthur Orr and Representative Danny Garrett, carry the CHOOSE Act," Ivey said.

The CHOOSE Act program would provide up to $7,000 per child enrolled at an accredited, participating private or public school through an education savings account funded by a new refundable income tax credit. Homeschooling families would receive up to $2,000 per homeschooler, with a $4,000 cap for families with more than one homeschooler, for eligible educational expenses. Families will begin participating in the program during the 2025-2026 academic year if the legislation is passed during the 2024 session. 

If passed into law, in the first two years of the program, families with an income up to 300% of the federal poverty level, currently $93,600 for a family of four, will be eligible.

In the third year and beyond, any Alabama family will be eligible, placing the CHOOSE program on a pathway to becoming truly universal as the program grows.

"We must leave no stone unturned when it comes to providing the next generation of Alabamians with the opportunity to pursue an educational path that best sets them up for success," Garrett said. "I would like to commend Governor Ivey for proposing a plan that will help take school choice to the next level in Alabama. The CHOOSE Act will give hardworking parents a tool that has the potential to change the trajectory of their child's educational future."

The CHOOSE Act appropriates at least $100 million to the education savings account program annually. Ivey has set aside $50 million for the fund in the Fiscal Year 2024 Education Trust Fund supplemental.

The CHOOSE Act has already garnered the support of Legislative Leadership, with Senate President Pro Tem Greg Reed (R-Jasper) and House Speaker Nathaniel Ledbetter (R-Rainsville) co-sponsoring the bill.

"Children are gifts from God, and they are the future of our great state. As legislators, one of our greatest responsibilities is to allocate resources in fiscally responsible ways to ensure that kids in our communities have every opportunity to be successful and achieve their dreams," Reed said. "A family's zip code should not be the primary indicator of a child's educational outcome, and we are committed to giving Alabama families the ability to make the best decisions regarding their children's educations."

The program's testing requirement is a standardized assessment aligned to the curricula of the participating school, a nationally norm-referenced achievement assessment or a nationally recognized aptitude assessment of the participating school's choice.

"My priority with school choice legislation has always been providing parents with additional options without negatively impacting Alabama's public education system," Ledbetter said. "After working with the governor's office on the CHOOSE Act for the last year, I feel that we have come up with a strong piece of legislation that accomplishes just that. I appreciate Governor Ivey's leadership on this important issue, and I am proud to co-sponsor this legislation in the House."

According to the legislation, schools allowed to participate in the CHOSE Act program are public K-12 schools and accredited private schools, including church, parochial, or religious schools, that provide education to K-12 students approved by the Alabama Department of Revenue. The school must be accredited or in the process of obtaining accreditation as determined by the department by one of the six regional accrediting agencies or the National Council for Private School Accreditation, AdvancED, the American Association of Christian Schools, or one of their partner accrediting agencies. 

The bill doesn't require any public school, school system, or school district or any nonpublic school, school system, or school district to enroll any student. 

"My goal is to put us on a trajectory to make our program fully universal, while also maintaining our full and total support of public education. At the end of the day, I believe the CHOOSE Act — packaged with providing our K-12 teachers the highest starting salaries among our neighboring states — will help our public schools become even stronger," Ivey said.

Orr told 1819 News on Tuesday, "I think we're making a good start."

"This being a more moderate starting point I think will give (other legislators) a lot of comfort and solace. Going forward in the coming years, we'll just have to see. Based on other states' history, you don't have a high uptake predicted for this I wouldn't think. It's a starting point. Get it under our feet but then see where we go from here," Orr said.

State Rep. Ernie Yarbrough (R-Trinity) filed an uncapped education savings account bill called the Parental Rights in Children's Education (PRICE) Act last week. State Sen. Larry Stutts (R-Tuscumbia), the Senate sponsor of the PRICE Act from last year, is listed as a co-sponsor of the 2024 CHOOSE Act.

Craig Monger and Jeff Poor contributed to this story.

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