The school choice bill was given a favorable report by the Senate Education Policy Committee on Wednesday, but the bill faced a ferocious onslaught of opposition from the Alabama education community during the public hearing.

Senate Bill 140 is sponsored by State Sen. Del Marsh (R-Anniston).

Marsh explained that SB140allows a parent to take $5,600 of state dollars and move them into a career path for their child chosen by them. 

Ryan Hollingsworth is the Executive Director of the School Superintendents of Alabama (SSA). He was appointed to that position after his predecessor, Eric Mackey, was chosen as State School Superintendent.

“We surveyed our superintendents today about 60% of systems accept transfers from other systems,” Hollingsworth said. “About half of our districts charge a fee. About half of our system allows parents to move a child between schools within the system.”

Hollingsworth said that this bill, “Looks like it would create a lot of jobs – an expansion of state jobs,”

“Home school kids and private school kids do not participate in the NAEP,” Hollingsworth said.

The NAEP is the National Assessment of Educational Performance – the standardized testing given to children at the end of the school year in the fourth and eighth grades to calculate state rankings.

“As long as they teach the five subject areas they can teach radical religious beliefs,” Hollingsworth said of private schools. “They can teach divisive beliefs.

“Anybody can open a church school. Who is responsible for verifying that the child actually exists? And that they live in the state of Alabama?”

Ashley McLain is the assistant executive director of the Alabama Education Association (AEA).

“Every session that I can remember ... there is a bill to remove the tax on groceries,” McLain said. “But every year the legislators show the wisdom to come together to protect the integrity of the Education Trust Fund (ETF).

“This bill takes $420 million and that is not just this year, this is every year,” McLain said. “This is not sustainable. Sixty million dollars in tax cuts were passed out of committee. Combine that with this and we are out $500 million from the ETF…I am urging you to protect the ETF and the communities’ schools that teachers and families depend on and where communities come together.”

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Shannon Cauley is the past president of the Alabama Association of School Boards and a member of the Baldwin County School Board.

Cauley said that this is, “An unconstitutional expenditure of public funds.”

“There could be a possible discriminatory effect,” Cauley said. “Where would rural kids go that do not have private school options?”

Cauley said that the reciprocal agreement provision of the state education savings account, “will allow our state dollars to go into other states. It will allow our state dollars to go to a school in other states.”

Cauley said it could become a social program for wealthy parents.

“Yes, we spend more on education than we did a few years ago, but how much of that has gone into teacher pay raises?” Cauley said.

John Wilson is the Chief Financial Officer for the Baldwin County schools. He claimed that “$420 million is just the baseline.”

Wilson claimed that as the program grows, “We are talking about a $1 billion cut from the ETF.”

Dr. Vic Wilson is the Executive Director of the Council for Leaders in Alabama Schools. He is the former Superintendent at the Hartselle City Schools - no relation to John Wilson.

“If private schools are going to get public money, they should have to meet the exact same requirements as public schools,” Dr. Vic Wilson said, “What if they don’t want to use the textbooks or the curriculum of the state?”

Dr. Vic Wilson said that private schools should also have to comply with all of the accountability standards of the public schools including the Literacy Act.

Arthur Watts is the CFO of Montgomery Public schools.

“I am deeply concerned about any funds being moved from the ETF,” Watts said. “What happens when you take $400 to $600 million out of the education trust fund?

“What happens when this causes us to lose psychometrists and counselors? Fifty-five to 60% of teachers are talking about leaving the education profession in the next two years.”

Dr. Eric Mackey is the State Superintendent of Education said he sent a letter to Sen. Del Marsh and all committee members.

“Students who are in third grade now have not had a full normal year since they were in kindergarten,” Mackey said. “Students who are seniors now have not had a full normal year since they were freshmen.

“We have no accountability for homeschoolers in this state. In other states, they require homeschoolers to register with the state. They have home visits, and they are required to take the state tests.

“This is giving them $5,400. If you are going to give them money, then they should take the same assessments as public schools. The same with private schools. We think they should be accredited. If this passes, I think we should put it all under the state board of education.”

No one was present to speak in favor of school choice.

State Sen. Vivian Figures (D-Mobile) said, “Sen. Marsh I know your heart is in the right place. As parents, we want to have choices. My one concern is that we have never adequately funded public education in the 19 years that I have been here. I know that there would be many children left behind if we do this because we are depleting the ETF.

“I really don’t agree to giving this money to people who can well afford to send their kids to private school.”

“Since I have been here, the amount we spend on education is doubled,” Marsh said. “It is now over $8 billion and that is a good thing. I went to public schools, my two kids went to public schools, my wife was a teacher in public schools. Competition is good for education.”

Marsh said it is important for parents to be involved and that education is related to crime in the state.

“If we do not improve our education, it affects our prison population it affects our healthcare,” Marsh said. “I cannot sit back and do nothing. Twenty-six states have legislation such as this to get parents involved in education. This is critical for the people of Alabama.”

Marsh said schools in Alabama could use more money from the state.

“Looking around the southeast, Alabama ranks third in funding per pupil,” Marsh said. “If we take $420 million out we would still be third. This is not taking money out of education it is just [taking it] out of the control of the bureaucracy.”

Marsh agreed to accept an amendment “requiring that participating students take the same standardized tests and assessments that are routinely administered by the public school system.”

At Marsh’s urging the committee tabled an amendment that would have limited this to students zoned in failing schools.

The committee gave SB 140 a favorable report. The legislation could be taken up by the full Senate as early as Thursday.

Marsh has told reporters that he does not currently have the 27 votes necessary to end a filibuster in order to advance the bill.

Mackey told reporters, “There is not enough accountability in the bill.”

Thursday will be day six of the 2022 Alabama Regular Legislative Session. The Legislature is limited to no more than 30 days in a regular session and a regular session cannot last more than 120 calendar days.

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