State Rep. Ernie Yarbrough (R-Trinity) announced on Thursday plans to file the "strongest school choice bill in the nation" in the 2024 legislative session, opening the option for Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) for all Alabamians.

Yarbrough sponsored similar legislation in 2023 alongside State Sen. Larry Stutts (R-Tuscumbia), who carried the bill in the Senate. The bill, called the Parental Rights in Children's Education (PRICE) Act, ultimately died on the vine in the legislature. However, prominent lawmakers began calling for the state to implement some form of ESA.

Yarbrough's bill would create education savings accounts 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. 

After being silent on the issue, Gov. Kay Ivey said she wanted "Alabama to be the most school choice-friendly state in the nation" shortly after the 2023 legislative session concluded.

Ivey said her office was drafting school choice legislation to create an ESA bill in 2024. Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth has also pushed for ESAs in the upcoming session.  

"Governor Ivey said she wants Alabama to be the most 'school choice friendly state in the nation,' and I'm here to help her deliver that to the people of our state," Yarbrough said. "We have the opportunity to maximize freedom in education and equip parents to choose what is best for their children."

Yarbrough's bill also includes a provision that concerned even the staunchest supporters of educational freedom. Many school choice supporters voiced concerns over the possibility of state-mandated testing for those utilizing ESAs who choose alternative schooling methods.

Eagle Forum of Alabama (EFA) backed the PRICE Act in the 2023 legislative session. However, EFA President Eunie Smith has stated that EFA will not support any legislation that creates additional regulation or testing requirements on students who do not attend state schools. 

Yarbrough's bill will not require education institutions participating in the program to administer government-mandated tests.

"If we say a school has to administer a test, that means we are telling them what they have to teach," Yarbrough explained. "The goal of school choice is to create freedom in education, not increase government involvement and control in education."

"It's high time that we put the parents' hands on the educational steering wheel so that we can get the results, the quality, the morals, and the values that we need. This bill does not harm public education - it strengthens the relationship between parents and educators so that all children benefit," he added.  

The bill is backed by the American Action Fund (AAF), which started a petition for residents to show support for school choice in the state.

For the PRICE Act, opponents claimed allowing full school choice across all grades would take an irreplaceable bite out of the state's education trust fund (ETF), which saw a massive surplus in 2023. Lawmakers, including Ainsworth,  have postulated implementing a gradual approach to ETFs, incorporating specific grade levels into the program every year until it is fully operational.  

Critics of school choice, most notably the Alabama Education Association (AEA), claim any ESA program would take resources away from the state's already struggling school system by bleeding the ETF.

According to AAF Vice President Ted Patterson, a gradual application of ETFs would be illogical since it does not increase any funding, and the amount applied to ETFs would equal the state's per-student figure.  

"If lawmakers adopt a clean school choice bill where the money follows the student, it doesn't increase government spending," Patterson said. "It is simply a reallocation of the money already being spent for that child's education. There is no reason to delay implementation of a school choice program because the money is already there."

He continued, "Adopting school choice for all kids is the number one thing lawmakers can do to improve the quality of education for Alabama's students. For too long, we have adopted a one-size-fits-all approach to American education. When schools and educators compete for students, this drives innovation and, ultimately, success in all sectors of society. School choice improves educational outcomes across the board."

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