Governor signs school tax-credit bill
by Tim Lockette
tlockette@annistonstar.com
Mar 14, 2013 | 6417 views |  0 comments | 10 10 recommendations | email to a friend | print
MONTGOMERY -- The Alabama Accountability Act, the much-debated bill that would grant tax credits to some parents to put their children into private schools, is now law.

Speaking to reporters in the Capitol, Gov. Robert Bentley announced shortly before noon today that he'd signed the bill.

"This will change the schools in this state," Bentley said. "There is no excuse any more for our schools to fail."

The signing comes after the Alabama Supreme Court Wednesday rejected a lawsuit by the Alabama Education Association to block the Legislature rom sending the bill to Bentley to be signed.

The bill, also known as HB84, began life as a school-flexibility measure, designed to allow schools to opt out of certain state regulations in the pursuit of educational goals.

In the last few hours before the bill's final passage, Republican leaders in the Senate changed the bill, more than doubling its length and adding provisions that would allow parents of students in "failing" school districts to claim a tax credit of up to $7,500 for move their children to private schools or other, non-failing public schools. While $7,500 is the upper limit, under the act's funding formula, tax credits would likely be no more than $3,500 to $4,000 per year.

The eleventh-hour change sparked a lawsuit by the AEA, which argued that the changes to the bill violated the Legislature's rules and the state's Open Meetings Act. A circuit court judge initially blocked the signing of the bill, but the Alabama Supreme Court vacated his decision late Wednesday.

Bentley, in announcing the signing, focused mostly on the school-flexibility aspects of the bill. He said the act will free school leaders to do what needs to be done to improve education.

"I don't want people to lose sight, with all the clutter that's going on, of the fact that we're giving schools something they've never had before," he said.

Many of the state's education policy leaders -- including state school Superintendent Tommy Bice, the Association of Alabama School Boards and the School Superintendents of Alabama -- supported the original flexibility bill.

After the tax-credit wording was added, those organizations asked Bentley to send the bill back to the Legislature for re-working. Among other things, school leaders asked for a clearer definition of "failing" schools and more clarity on who would get the tax credit.

The bill was passed without a fiscal note , a statement of economic impact that normally accompanies legislation. Education advocacy groups have estimated the cost of the tax credit at anywhere between $25 million and $367 million. That money would come from the Education Trust Fund, which is funded by sales and income taxes.

Bentley told reporters he believed the bill would not adversely affect the Education Trust Fund.

"Our goal is to make every school in this state a non-failing school," he said. "If that happens, there will be no tax credits."

The bill offers four definitions of a failing school, one of which would include the schools in the bottom 10 percent in academic performance.

Bentley said any remaining problems with the bill can be worked out through regulations and rules from the state Department of Education and the Department of Revenue. He said the 10-percent issue would likely be worked out through the education department.

Asked how the Department of Education would solve the 10-percent problem, Bentley said he didn't know, but he said it would be done. He said any remaining issues could be worked out in the next session of the Legislature.

The bill is likely to face another court challenge soon from the AEA. Before the governor's announcement , AEA executive secretary Henry Mabry said a new lawsuit could be filed as early as Friday.

Mabry wouldn't comment on the legal strategy the association would pursue in the lawsuit.

"I guarantee it will open their eyes," he said.

Speaking before the bill's signing, Mabry said he didn't doubt the governor would sign the act.

"That's his prerogative," he said. "But the people of Alabama will make him regret it."

Capitol and statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter: @TLockette_Star.
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Governor signs school tax-credit bill by Tim Lockette
tlockette@annistonstar.com

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