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State News

March 4, 2013

Ala. governor says tax credit bill worth the price

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Alabama's governor said running over his own education allies was worth it to win approval for tax credits to help children in failing public schools transfer to private schools.

Education leaders said Republican Gov. Robert Bentley damaged valuable relationships when he worked in private with the Legislature's Republican leaders to expand a school flexibility bill that the educators backed into a tax credit bill they opposed.

"There is no question some bridges will have to be rebuilt," Eric Mackey, executive director of the School Superintendents of Alabama, said Friday.

Bentley said he didn't consult the state school superintendent and other education leaders about rewriting the legislation at the last minute because they would have opposed it and likely killed it.

Bentley, who plans to sign the bill Tuesday, said failing schools have no impetus now to improve, but that the legislation will make failing schools get better because they risk losing tax dollars and students.

"Take away all of this trust stuff. Take away all of these folks that are upset. I don't care. Let me tell you what I care about. I care about those children who are failing in those schools and they have no way out," he said Friday.

Opponents, including the Alabama Education Association and its Democratic allies, said Friday they are looking for ways to challenge the measure in court, including claiming that Republicans violated the state's open meetings law when muscling through the bill.

"They violated the law and violated the people's trust," said Rep. Thomas Jackson of Thomasville, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.

The legislative session began Feb. 5 with nearly every education group except the AEA lining up behind the governor and Republican legislative leaders to endorse a bill to give city and county school boards more flexibility in complying with the state education laws. Democrats mostly sided with AEA to oppose any flexibility involving teacher tenure laws.

The House and Senate passed different versions of the flexibility bill, prompting formation of a Republican-dominated conference committee Thursday afternoon to come up with a compromise. Instead, the committee tripled the bill in size by adding tax credits for parents who move their children from a failing public school to another public school or private or parochial school. For those who couldn't afford the move, the bill sets up a scholarship program, and businesses and individuals can get tax credits for contributing.

Sally Howell, executive director of the Alabama Association of School Boards, said she worked in good faith with Republican leaders and got "bushwhacked" by the tax credit addition.

Democrats, who comprise only about one-third of the Legislature, complained of a "bait and switch" and said Republicans were giving private schools a new way to recruit the best athletes from public schools. Their shouting and finger pointing produced lively videos for YouTube, but they were too few to slow down the bill. The House approved it 51-26 and the Senate 22-11 on party-line votes.

The bill said failing schools include those in the bottom 10 percent on statewide reading and math assessment scores, with three consecutive D's or one F on the school grading card, or labeled "persistently low-performing" on the state's School Improvement Grant application.

The 10 percent provision in the bill automatically means that 150 of Alabama's 1,499 public schools qualify, Mackey said.

The tax credits that parents can take are unlimited, but the tax credits for business and individuals and businesses donating to the scholarship program are capped at $25 million annually.

The governor said Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, approached him Tuesday about adding tax credits. Bentley said he insisted that any tax credits included a way to help children from poor families, which resulted in the scholarships.

The tax credits come from state income taxes, which are the largest source of revenue for public schools. Bentley, AEA and others said Friday they don't have an estimate of the cost to public education.

But AEA Executive Secretary Henry Mabry said the outcome is clear: "It's going to be a disaster all across this state. You are talking about taking public school money and giving it to private schools and private companies."

Bentley, who serves as president of the state school board, hinted that more big changes could be ahead for low-performing schools.

"Whatever it takes to make sure those children have a good education, we are going to do it," he said.

 

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