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Alabama bill would give parents cash for private schools


A proposed educational voucher plan in Alabama would give parents thousands of dollars annually in public funds to pay for private school or homeschooling expenses for their child. It’s part of a wave of GOP school choice proposals in conservative states across the country. The Alabama Senate Education Policy Committee on Wednesday held a public hearing on the Parental Rights in Children's Education, or Price Act. The bill, which faces an uncertain future as lawmakers reach the midpoint of the legislative session, would give parents up to $6,900 per student through education savings accounts to pay for education expenses such as private school or homeschooling.

"This has an opportunity to change the direction of education in the state," Republican Senator Larry Stutts, the bill's sponsor, told the committee.

During the public hearing, opponents argued the plan would reduce public education funding while giving no assurances that children would receive a quality education. The Legislative Services Agency estimated that it could cost the education budget $576.1 million if 5% of eligible public school students participated.

"We need more funding, not legislation that would take funding away from public schools in Alabama," Boyd English, the superintendent of the Albertville city school system, told the committee. English said public schools face multiple performance metrics that private schools and homeschool classrooms do not, including standardized testing and graduation rates.

Allison King of the Alabama Education Association, the lobby for public school teachers and employees, called the proposal an "ideal setup for fraud," because parents could use the funds on a variety of expenses. "Nothing requires money be spent on education in this bill, much less quality education," King said.

The bill also drew support from conservative groups who argued parents are frustrated with public schools and want options for how — and where — their children receive an education.

"It's time to fund students, and not systems. Education dollars should go to educating students and not to propping up institutions," Becky Gerritson of the conservative group Eagle Forum told the committee.

Sheila Banister, the mother of a second-grader, wore a shirt reading "My Child My Choice." Banister said when her military family moved to the state she was "shocked to find out how poor Alabama ranks across the nation." She said she was concerned about school closures during the pandemic and required masking when her then-kindergartner was learning to read, as well as by curriculum and library choices.

"I would argue that parents are uniquely qualified to pick the best option for their child," Banister said.

Battles over over culture war issues — including how how race and gender are taught — and pandemic-era school closures have given new life to proposals to use public money to fund alternative school choices.

The proposal is an aggressive step forward from Alabama's previously approved school choice proposals, which authorized charter schools or gave tax credits for donations to private school scholarship programs.

Following the public hearing, the committee chairman announced the bill would move to the Senate education budget committee because of the budget impact. Stutts expressed his unhappiness with the committee change and suggested it was a stalling tactic to avoid a vote.

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