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State News

May 2, 2013

Time running out to clarify Alabama tax credits

MONTGOMERY, Ala. —

As time runs out to clarify Alabama's new private school tax credits, Republican lawmakers appear to agree on only one point: They want to be clear that no public or private school has to take a student from a failing public school.

Proponents say that will keep successful schools from being overrun with new students. Opponents say it's a way to let overwhelmingly white suburban schools reject inner-city students.

"All this is doing is saying if my child in Jefferson County is in a failing school, he cannot go across that mountain to Mountain Brook or Vestavia. That's what this bill is saying. And we are sitting here continuing to perpetuate segregation in our state," Democratic Rep. A.J. McCampbell of Linden said.

The private school tax breaks are part of the Alabama Accountability Act that the Legislature's Republican majority passed Feb. 28 after cutting off debate by Democrats. The bill provides a state tax credit for parents who choose to send their children to a private school or non-failing public school rather than a failing public school. A failing school is determined by current assessments and by a new school grading system that starts in 2017.

The state Department of Education decided the tax breaks don't apply to students already in private school, but will apply to those who move to private school in the future.

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, offered a bill to clear up several parts of the law. His measure specifies that students already in private school are covered if they are zoned for a failing school. But with only four meeting days left in the 2013 legislative session, he said his bill appears dead because of disagreements between Republicans. Among those disagreements: whether students already in private school should qualify for the tax breaks and whether the state should have income limits for the tax breaks.

"The big key issues are the means test and who qualifies," Marsh said.

Instead, he said the Legislature will work with a bill by Republican Rep. Jim Carns of Mountain Brook that passed the House 62-40 Tuesday night. The bill would make only one change in the law. It specifies that no private school or public school has to accept a student who wants to transfer from a failing public school.

The bill could be considered by the Senate next week.

Marsh, who helped write the tax credits law, said the Senate will likely expand Carns' bill to make clear that if a student transfers to a non-failing school within the same school system, then the school system must provide transportation. But if a student transfers to a non-failing school in another school system, then the transportation is the responsibility of the student.

Carns prepared his bill after city and county school administrators and school board members said they should not be forced to take a student from another system. The complaints were especially strong from better funded suburban school systems represented by many Republican legislators who voted for the Alabama Accountability Act on Feb. 28.

Republican Rep. Mike Hill of Columbiana said Shelby County has a strong program for mentally and physically impaired students, and the county fears it will be overrun by students from other counties whose parents pay no tax in Shelby County to support the costly program.

"We'd be paying $10,000 per student. If we can't say no, we'd be in financial trouble in a hurry," he said.

Democrats who voted against the Alabama Accountability Act said Carns' bill will make the law worse by cutting off the ability of inner-city students in failing schools to transfer to good schools in suburban districts.

"We are backing up in the state of Alabama," Democratic Rep. Thomas Jackson of Thomasville said.

The sponsor of the Alabama Accountability Act, Republican Rep. Chad Fincher of Semmes, predicted many public schools and private schools will accept transfers and thousands will benefit from the new law.

"There are private schools that are willing and ready to take students," he said.

A Republican who favors limits on who gets the tax breaks, Senate budget committee Chairman Trip Pittman of Daphne, said the best approach may be to do nothing in the closing days of the legislative session.

"It may be best to let the bill work and see where the problems are," he said.

 

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