A substitute for the school choice bill has passed the Alabama Senate, much to the dismay of school choice supporters.

School choice has been a hot topic in the state since it was announced that the issue would be dealt with in the legislature this year. 

In late January, members of the Legislature presented the Parents Choice Act (PCA), both in the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Sen. Del Marsh (R-Anniston) introduced Senate Bill 302 (SB302), and Rep. Charlotte Meadows (R-Montgomery) presented House Bill 245 (HB245) in the House. 

The PCA seeks to allow parents of students to use a portion of the tax dollars currently used to fund Alabama's public education system as a means to pay for school options other than the state public school they are zoned to attend. Currently, the system limits choices for those who cannot afford alternative forms of education, leaving them with only the public schools within their county or city limits. The PCA would give parents access to state funds in the amount of the average cost-per-student in their county to use toward charter, private or homeschool expenses.

According to Marsh, the substitute bill which passed the Senate allows only county funds to follow a student towards a public charter school of their choice, but only if the child lives in a county that has a public charter school and the county has more than 40,000 residents. The 40,000 resident cap comes due to the lower property taxes (millage rate) levied against lower population counties. 

The funding would not come from state or municipal funding. County funds would follow a charter school student exclusively. There are currently only eight public charter schools in Alabama that would be eligible under this bill.

Since the PCA was introduced, Marsh has worked extensively with opposition towards a compromise that could be agreed upon. The deliberations between Marsh and other lawmakers led to the PCA being dropped and a substitute being offered. 

“As you all know, I came up with a pretty bold bill dealing with parents’ choice law,” Marsh said. “…I put that bill to the side, and the leadership, thank goodness, in both the House and the Senate set up an education commission that divided itself into four subcommittees… Through this, I’ve been very impressed with the positive feedback that members have received and exceptionally impressed by the ability of Republicans and Democrats to get around a table and work together in both the House and the Senate to try to come up with some solution. 

During negotiations, Meadows expressed concern with the possibility of a substitute but granted that it was simply a part of the legislative process.

“Any time you’re working a big piece of legislation, you’ve got to be willing to look at what other people are thinking and get their thoughts and incorporate them into the bill, and I think that’s what [Marsh] is trying to do, is listen to his caucus and listen to the other senators and figure out what can they vote yes on and what are they going to balk at," Meadows said. 

The Senate bill offered as a compromise significantly reduces the scope of school choice but does offer options to those residing in specific counties. 

Sen. Linda Coleman-Madison (D-Jefferson Co.) spoke in opposition to the bill, stating she was concerned with the effect the bill would have on inner-city schools.

“Government, as Abraham Lincoln says, was not intended to do everything,” Madison said. “Government was meant to do those things for which people could not do for themselves; public education is one of those things.”

The bill passed the Senate with a vote of 22 ayes, one nay, and two abstentions and will now go to the House for deliberation. 

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