According to Gov. Kay Ivey, school choice in Alabama in the form of education savings accounts (ESAs) is in the works for the 2024 legislative session, but details of what that will look like are scant.

Recently, Ivey announced her office would put forward a school choice ESA bill in the next legislative session.

For two years, lawmakers have filed various school choice bills establishing ESAs. Most recently, lawmakers introduced the Parental Rights in Children's Education (PRICE) Act, which failed to make it to either floor for a vote after opposition from public education advocates and some lawmakers. Most believed the bill would remove too much money from the state's Education Trust Fund (ETF).

Representatives from the Alabama Education Association, one of the most outspoken opponents of school choice and ESAs, did not immediately respond to 1819 News for a reaction to Ivey's comments.

According to House education budget committee chairman State Rep. Danny Garrett (R-Trussville), the PRICE Act had too many potential unforeseen effects on the ETF. However, the legislature could potentially formulate a bill without the undesirable side effects.

"Everybody is looking at school choice in some form or fashion all across the country," Garrett told 1819 News. "And I don't see that effort subsiding."

According to Garrett, his understanding of the PRICE Act left too many questions and insufficient time in the session to receive answers. However, he believes the Act set a flag to gauge future discussions on school choice in Alabama.

"[The PRICE Act] looked around at other states that passed school choice legislation, and picked the parts in those bills that they liked the most, and kind of left out the other parts," Garrett continued. "And so, you kind of had this school choice bill that was unlike anything else in the country."

He continued, "When you take the traditional ESAs that other states are passing, you don't have a mass exodus from the public schools. Part of that is because of the limitations they put on the dollars that are available for those scholarships, and part of it is the accountability that they put on the alternative choices. The PRICE bill didn't really have that. I feel that the PRICE Act primarily was going to benefit disproportionately a lot of people that were already out of the public school system. If that were the case, then yeah, you would have a lot of money that's being used by students in public ed, that's being used by students that were never in public ed to start with. Whereas most of what the other programs do, as people leave public education, the dollars follow the student. Somewhere in there, there's a balance that the PRICE Act didn't achieve. But I think it's certainly set a marker out there for what is to be discussed."

House Education Policy chairwoman State Rep. Terri Collins (R-Decatur) said both Garrett and Senate education budget committee chairman State Sen. Arthur Orr (R-Decatur) favored an ESA bill filed during the 2023 regular session but did not receive a vote.

"I was pleased to hear Gov. Ivey say that was going to be a priority. Representative Garrett and I had a really good [ESA] bill that we filed right at the beginning of session, and I think you'll see that again," Collins said.

The bill in reference — House Bill 442 (HB442), also called "The Alabama Fits All Scholarship Program" — would have created ESAs administered under a program manager to eligible students.

The scholarship would be open to students in all non-public contexts, with certain preferential guidelines should demand outrun supply. However, the bill also requires specific reporting requirements to maintain eligibility.

"To maintain eligibility, the scholarship student or the parent of the scholarship student shall annually complete and deliver to the program manager a portfolio describing the scholarship student's educational opportunities and achievements under the program for the given year," the bill reads.

Eagle Forum of Alabama, the state chapter of Eagle Forum (EF), has been among the more strident supporters of furthering school choice and ESAs. According to Eagle Forum President Eunie Smith, any school choice option requiring further government regulation and oversight would be unacceptable.

"EF supports universal school choice which enables every parent to direct each child to a personal education model without requiring ANY more state regulation than is already in place in Alabama," Smith said in a statement to 1819 News. "For the state to enable school choice (ESAs) and at the same time to restrict that choice would be counterproductive. It would defeat the purpose of parental rights. It could simply mean repetition of the failures of the current state system. Specifically, EF cannot support a bill that contains any type of testing requirement placed on either the parents or the schools. The schools need to be accountable to the parents."

Although Collins mentioned HB442 as a possible option for an ESA option in 2024, the decision is not final, and negotiations will likely take place leading up to the session and throughout.

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