Alabama House Approves Education Program Resembling School Vouchers

The Alabama House of Representatives greenlit a program resembling vouchers for schools following a lengthy debate that spanned over four hours.

HB 129, sponsored by Rep. Danny Garrett, R-Trussville and dubbed the CHOOSE Act, got the House’s nod with a 69-34 vote. Six Republicans sided with Democrats in opposing the measure.

Advocates of the measure argued that it could open up avenues for students enrolled in underperforming schools to access better educational opportunities.

“The CHOOSE Act will give students the chance to learn and excel in an environment that caters to their needs, which could be within a public school,” stated Garrett during Tuesday’s discussion.

Most dissent against the bill stemmed from Democrats, who contended that it could erode public education in Alabama. Some likened the legislation to a contemporary form of segregation.

Rep. Curtis Travis, D-Tuscaloosa, drew from his encounters during the desegregation of schools in Hale County from the late 1960s to the early 1970s, recalling the emergence of private schools serving predominantly white students as a response to federal desegregation mandates. He expressed concerns that the Legislature might be channeling tax dollars “to foster segregation.”

“It’s not that history tends to repeat itself, but that people tend to repeat history,” voiced Travis.

The bill proposes that households with school-going children can claim up to $7,000 in tax credits for select education-related expenses like private school fees, tutoring, and educational services for children with disabilities.

For the program to launch, the Legislature needs to allocate a minimum of $100 million annually. The first 500 slots are earmarked for students with special needs, as defined by individualized education plans (IEP) or 504 plans.

Initially, the initiative will target families earning less than 300% of the federal poverty line, approximately $75,000 for a family of three, prioritizing those with lower incomes. Eventually, all households will be eligible for the funds, although the reserved special needs spots won’t be bound by income criteria.

While Democrats have consistently opposed voucher and voucher-like legislations, Republicans from rural areas have also harbored concerns over similar bills fearing they could divert resources from local schools.

Reps. Alan Baker, R-Brewton; Tracy Estes, R-Winfield; Chris Sells, R-Greenville; Randall Shedd, R-Fairview; David Standridge, R-Hayden; and Tim Wadsworth, R-Arley aligned with Democrats in voting against the proposal.

House Education Policy Committee Chair Terri Collins, R-Decatur, who presented the bill on the House floor, emphasized the numerous safeguards that protect public schools within the legislation, including allowing parents to evaluate school performance by comparing students’ achievements nationally.

“I value accountability. I discern that in this bill,” stated Collins.

Despite this assurance, Democrats remained doubtful. Rep. Sam Jones, D-Mobile, mirrored Travis’s concerns, apprehensive that the legislation could fuel segregation.

“What we have here, as I mentioned earlier, is a real experiment, and for the sake of the kids in this state, I hope it works,” commented Jones.

Garrett rejected assertions that the legislation might propagate segregation, asserting at one point that “we need to move past that notion.”

Rep. Barbara Drummond, D-Mobile, raised concerns regarding the fairness and transparency of the bill. She pointed out the contrasting regulations governing private and public schools.

“Equal rules should apply to both public and private schools for a fair comparison. Currently, this legislation falls short in that aspect,” noted Drummond, highlighting uncertainties over the certification of teachers in private institutions.

Garrett thwarted attempts by conservative lawmakers to widen the program’s scope.

Rep. Arnold Mooney, R-Indian Hills, felt that the bill restricted parental choice and proposed an amendment to exempt education service providers from Alabama Department of Revenue approval. The amendment was dismissed in an 85-11 vote.

“Allowing every child to participate would be remarkable for our state,” Mooney underscored, suggesting that the amendment would enable any child to vie for educational savings.

Rep. Ernie Yarbrough, R-Trinity, put forth an amendment seeking to expand fund usage to include “micro” or hybrid schools, which also met a tabling fate with an 82-9 count.

“It’s crucial that we uphold the core intention of this bill,” emphasized Yarbrough.

Rep. Ben Harrison, R-Elkmont, floated an amendment to broaden the scope of funds available in the educational savings account to include vocational or GED training, purchasing computer hardware and uniforms, as well as transportation. The proposed amendment met a 82-7 defeat.

“Each child is unique with distinct needs and capabilities,” Robinson emphasized.

Amy Marlowe, executive director of the Alabama Education Association, articulated reservations about the bill, indicating that a majority of Alabamians oppose siphoning “unlimited funding from the Education Trust Fund for this program.”

“As the bill transitions to the Senate, we aim to collaborate to devise a bill that safeguards Alabama schools. A cap must be enforced to preserve the future of our local schools; otherwise, this measure shouldn’t advance,” Marlowe stated.

The bill is now headed to the Senate.