MONTGOMERY — The Parental Rights in Children's Education (PRICE) Act, which would offer comprehensive school choice in Alabama, was sent to another Senate committee after receiving a public hearing in the Senate Education Committee.
Senate Education Committee chairman State Sen. Donnie Chesteen (R-Geneva) used his chair prerogatives to send the PRICE Act to the Senate budget committee, a move the bill’s sponsor called a “stalling tactic.”
Senate Bill 202 (SB202) by State Sen. Larry Stutts (R-Tuscumbia) is the Senate version of the bill. State Rep. Ernie Yarbrough (R-Trinity) is carrying the bill in the House.
The bill allows parents to apply for Educational Savings Accounts (ESAs) for their children. Several states are enacting universal ESA programs as they provide the most flexibility. Funds provided through vouchers and tax credit scholarships can only be used for tuition and fees, but ESA funds can be used for many education-related expenses.
A 13-person advisory board would manage the ESA program through the Department of Revenue.
Alabama House Speaker Nathaniel Ledbetter (R-Rainsville) and Senate Pro Tem Greg Reed have downplayed the possibility of a full school choice option passing the legislature this year.
The bill received a public hearing in the Education Committee on Wednesday, giving advocates and opponents a chance to voice their opinion.
While an even number of people were speaking for and against the bill, the vast majority of attendees were in support since the room would break into applause when a proponent concluded remarks.
Opponents included local school superintendents, the Council for Leaders in Alabama, the Alabama Education Association (AEA), and the School Superintendents of Alabama (SSA).
Proponents included The Heritage Foundation, The Reason Foundation, Eagle Forum of Alabama, and
Ryan Hollingsworth, the executive director of the SSA, spoke against the bill, saying the state already had sufficient school choice through its charter school programs and the Alabama Accountability Act. He also noted that the $6,900 per-student figure in the Act was not equal to the average tax paid by working families.
"We get to choose how to spend our resources and do the things that we want to do," Hollingsworth argued. "But paying taxes, then that becomes public taxpayer money."
Christian Barnard, a senior policy analyst at the Reason Foundation, spoke in favor of the bill, saying that research shows the Act would not draw an excessive amount of money from public schools.
"The Price Act's $6,900 per-student figure doesn't account for all the funds school districts receive," Barnard said. "Namely, federal grants, local mils (property tax), the state funds outside of the foundation program. That means that, when students leave districts to enroll in the ESA program, these funds will often stay with district budgets."
Allison King, the government relations director of the AEA, said that the Act lacked accountability and oversight.
"All public schools currently have accountability requirements for funds, achievement and more," King said. "But there is no requirement for that with this bill. Nothing requires money be spent on education in this bill, much less quality education."
Stutts spoke after the public hearing, saying that Alabama's current underperformance in education was hurting the state.
"I think this bill has the potential to make changes faster than the Alabama Accountability Act and those other things that we've done," Stutts outlined. "The Numeracy Act, all those things are good. I voted for those things, but they reach a very limited number of people, and this has the opportunity to change the direction of education in the state faster than these other things."
When Chesteen said he was moving the bill to the budget committee, Stutts said he suggested that from the beginning and that this was a stalling tactic from the chair.
"I understand the stalling tactics of running out the legislative session; I understand where this is headed," Stutts said.
"I'm sure you do," Chesteen retorted.
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