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Lawmakers approve expanding private school scholarships


Alabama lawmakers approved an expansion of a scholarship program aimed at helping low- and moderate-income students attend private schools. The House of Representatives voted 75-22 for the bill that would expand income eligibility and make other changes to increase the number of students participating in the program. The measure now goes to Governor Kay Ivey.

The bill advanced as Republicans across the country have championed various forms of so-called "school choice" legislation, ranging from vouchers to scholarship programs, to provide public support for private school or other alternative school options.

"More children will have access to it," Republican House member Terri Collins, of Decatur, said of the legislation during debate.

Republican Senator Donnie Chesteen, the bill's sponsor, estimated last week that the number of students participating in the program could increase from about 3,000 to 4,400 with the changes.

The existing program, known as the Alabama Accountability Act, gives tax credits for donations to organizations that provide the scholarships. Scholarship priority is given to students zoned to attend schools labeled as "failing" because they are in the lowest 6% of test scores. It also gives tax credits to help families transfer out of schools that have been designated as "failing."

The approved legislation raises the income cap for new scholarships from $55,500 for a family of four to $75,000. It expands eligibility to also include students with Individualized Education Programs because of a diagnosed learning disability or other condition.

The bill raises the maximum scholarship to $10,000 per student. It would also provide more money for the program by gradually raising the annual cap on the tax credits from $30 million to $40 million, and eventually up to $60 million.

It would also do away with the label of "failing" school and replace it with "priority" schools. Schools would be given that label based on receiving a D or F on state report cards instead of just test scores.

Republicans created the Alabama Accountability Act in 2013, pushing through the bill via conference committee during a chaotic legislative night.

"I always have a bad taste in my mouth about this bill," Democratic House member Laura Hall, of Huntsville, said.

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