By PHILLIP RAWLS
MONTGOMERY, Ala. —
In his first speech to educators since signing private school tax credits into law, Gov. Robert Bentley said Tuesday that he signed the legislation because of the flexibility it gives public schools to try new ideas to improve learning.
The Republican governor got a mostly polite but largely silent reception from several hundred people attending the Alabama Retired Educators Association’s annual meeting in Montgomery.
“I want to thank the 30 people who just applauded,” he said at one point.
At another point, he told the retirees, “Y’all are mad at me. I understand that.”
After the speech, Bentley said he knew he would face an upset audience Tuesday, but he decided to make the speech because of his respect for teachers and the impact his teachers had on him becoming a physician. The Republican governor had committed to address the group before he signed the Alabama Accountability Act into law.
The new law started out as a bill to allow the state school board to give city and county school systems flexibility in complying with state education laws. On Feb. 28, a legislative conference committee tripled the bill in size and added tax breaks for parents who enroll their children in a private school rather than a public school rated as failing. It also provided parents with the ability to move their child from a failing school to a non-failing school in the same school system or another school system.
The retired educators’ group is affiliated with the state teachers’ organization, Alabama Education Association, which is challenging the new law in court.
“If you are for failing schools in this state, I want you to stand up,” Bentley told the retired educators. No one did.
Bentley said that when the Legislature begins the second half of its 2013 session next week, he expects some legislators to introduce bills to change the new law, but he said he’s not sure what they will be or whether he will support them.
AEA Executive Director Henry Mabry told the retirees that some of Alabama’s better-funded school systems will encourage the Legislature to take out the provision that allows students to transfer from a failing school in one system to a non-failing public school in another system.
In Bentley’s speech, he reminded the retired educators that he proposed a 2.5 percent cost-of-living raise for current school employees in the upcoming school year, but he said he didn’t know whether the Legislature would approve that much.
Mabry said the Legislature can’t because the tax new credits will reduce education funding by $50 million to $365 million annually, depending on how many parents use them, and that will erase much of the money Bentley intended for raises.
Mabry got a standing ovation after his remarks.