School choice is shaping up to be one of the more contentious subjects debated by lawmakers during the 2024 regular session beginning in February.

No school bill has been filed yet in the upcoming session; however, Gov. Kay Ivey and other lawmakers have said they are working on individual bills addressing the issue.

Ivey previously said her office was working on a bill to develop education savings accounts (ESAs).

State Rep. Ernie Yarbrough (R-Trinity) recently announced his intention to file an ESA bill of his own. While the details are unknown, Yarbrough’s bill will likely contain several provisions that made his 2023 school choice bill so contentious.

ESAs would allocate state funds parents can access for homeschooling, private schooling and, in some cases, out-of-district schools. State funds can be used for various necessities, such as textbooks, tuition, tutoring, language studies, therapies and extracurricular activities such as art, music, literature and more.

Yarbrough's 2023 bill would have created ESAs funded at about $7,000 annually, roughly the amount the state spends on each student in the public school system. The ESAs would be available to any K-12 student in Alabama whose parents wish to participate. The funds could be used for educational expenses, including tuition, textbooks and transportation. 

Funding for the ESAs would go through the state’s Education Trust Fund (ETF). Since the ETF is supposed to be for public education costs, critics have claimed school choice and ESAs would take an irreparable bite out of the ETF.

The House Democratic Caucus recently opposed ETFs, calling them “vouchers” and listing ways similar programs could harm public education.

While technically not vouchers, ESAs operate similarly by allowing parents to use public funding allocated for their child toward tuition at a private school of their choice. However, ESAs have a broader application.

State Rep. Barbara Drummond (D-Mobile) is the vice chair of the Alabama Democratic Caucus. She also sat on Ivey’s commission on teaching and learning, which released its report last month on how the state can improve student outcomes and teacher quality. Drummond recently spoke to 1819 News about the upcoming legislative debate over school choice and the caucus's concerns about the proposal.  

Drummond said the state has already poured money into other education-advancing measures, and it wouldn’t make sense to employ any more drastic education measures until the state allows those incentives to take root.

“I often get a little bit disenchanted with Alabama because we have tried so many things, but yet we have no patience to wait and see if any of those things are going to make a measurable difference,” Drummond said. “We always think that we have this magic solution that is going to happen overnight.”

“The disintegration that we see in education that we see did not occur just in the twinkle of an eye. It was something that happened in a progression of time. So I think that it is something that we all have to put our arms around and do things that, as my mom would say, makes ‘walking around sense’ for everybody, every student, no matter if you are a student that has a disability or if you’re the brightest one in the system.”

Drummond said she and her colleagues maintain an open mind regarding solutions in education. In addition to the potential damage to the ETF, Drummond explained additional concerns with ESAs and voucher programs, including no protection from predatory tuition hikes from private institutions, decreased resources for rural areas that are already struggling, and exclusion of rural families with little to no access to alternative schooling.

“We’ve got to start looking at the resources of how we fund public education,” Drummond continued. “Do we need more funding for public education? I think that we do. Where that will come from, I don’t have that answer today, but I am certainly willing to take off any partisan lens and let’s look at what is in the best interest of these students in the state of Alabama.

For Drummond, the existing data on school choice has yet to convince her that school choice is worth the possible harmful effects on the state’s education budget.

“As a caucus, we are urging everybody, with all the conversation and the voices that we’re hearing, we think that they need to look at the economics of it,” Drummond explained. “And then the issue needs to be analyzed for its effectiveness, and we’ve not seen any data where It has been effective. This is an investment that we’re going to be making. And if the dollar is not going to be giving any kind of high yield, why are we putting public dollars into something that we don’t know if it’s going to work.”

“As a caucus, we are concerned about lifting all [students], not just some. Making sure that all students get a good quality education in Alabama. And if anybody can show us the data that this program will help that, I particularly don’t see it right now because I have looked at all of those states that have implemented voucher programs, and the data is not favorable.”

Despite debates over favorable and unfavorable data, school choice proponents have often pushed a principled stance rather than a pragmatic one. For supporters of ESAs, the principle of parental choice in education combined with a free market approach to schooling is sufficient to implement school choice measures without years' worth of underlying data.

For Drummond, the principle of the debate should encircle the best outcome for all Alabama students instead of deploying a novel system that may or may not show positive effects.

“Those same parents already have those choices right now,” Drummond concluded. “They can send their kids to private schools, or they can homeschool. Why should that state subsidize that when the state is supposed to protect the interests of all students and not just some? Does that choice not already exist for those parents? If that were not the case, I would be fighting for those parents, but the choice already exists. And again, the state should be looking out for the welfare of all.”

“I represent some folks who are parents who don’t have the wherewithal to be able to maneuver or navigate a voucher system. They’re too busy trying to keep food on the table. And sometimes, I’ll be very blunt with you, some of them can’t make the right choices for themselves in life, so how are we expecting them to do the right thing for their children.”

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