Chance of major change to Accountability Act dwindling
by Tim Lockette
tlockette@annistonstar.com
May 01, 2013 | 3251 views |  0 comments | 30 30 recommendations | email to a friend | print
MONTGOMERY — The possibility of major changes to the Alabama Accountability Act — the school tax-credit bill that has dominated this year's session of the Alabama Legislature — is looking increasingly remote as the session draws to a close.

A bill containing several changes to the Accountability Act, proposed by Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, was all but dead Wednesday, after it stalled in the Senate on Tuesday. Marsh and other senators said Tuesday was the last day a contested bill could pass the Senate.

Senators could re-introduce those changes as amendments to a bill that passed the House Tuesday, but Marsh said he didn't expect many changes.

"This is not going to become a big battle in the Senate," said Marsh, the president pro tempore.

Marsh set off weeks of controversy in late February when he created he Accountability Act. The bill was passed by both houses as the School Flexibility Act, a measure that would allow school systems to opt out of some state regulations for academic purposes.

In conference committee, the process by which House and Senate versions of bills are reconciled, Marsh and other Republican committee members tripled the length of the bill, adding new provisions that would grant parents a tax credit if their children are zoned for "failing" schools, provided they send their children to non-failing schools, either public or private. Parents would get a refundable income tax credit of about $3,500 per year, under the act's formula.

The bill's unknowns have been a source of debate in Montgomery ever since. School officials wanted to know which schools would be listed as failing; one rule in the bill would place the bottom 10 percent of schools in academic performance on the list. Lawmakers wanted to know the bill's cost, now estimated by state officials as anywhere between $30 million and $60 million.

Parents and private school officials wanted to know whether the bill would grant a tax credit to children already in private school, or only those who make the switch from public to private after the passage of the law.

Shortly after the bill was signed, Marsh announced that he'd seek a separate bill to address those questions. His bill clarified that students already in private schools would get the tax credit, allowed non-failing schools to refuse to enroll students transferring from "failing" school zones, and redefined "failing" schools.

Under Marsh's proposal, after 2017, a failing school would have been one with a grade of D or F under the state's new school-grading system. Critics of the original bill said that without the change, the failing list would always contain 10 percent of the state's schools.

In hearings on Marsh's proposed changes, Sen. Bill Holtzclaw, R-Madison, asked for means-testing to make sure that the tax credit would go only to poor and middle-income families, but the bill passed out of committee without that change.

Marsh said Tuesday that the debate over means-testing was one reason the bill was held up in the Senate.

While Marsh's bill languished in the Senate, the House passed a bill Tuesday that would allow school systems to reject students transferring from failing schools under the Accountability Act.

Democrats offered a number of amendments to the House bill, none of which was passed. Rep. Barbara Boyd, D-Anniston, said she offered an amendment that would keep schools from rejecting transfer students on the basis of race.

“I wanted an amendment, but they wouldn’t let us make amendments,” she said.

When the House bill hits the Senate, senators could add their own amendments — but Marsh said he wanted to move the bill forward without starting a battle in the chamber.

"It's still a vehicle for changes, but only if we can get the senators to agree on it," Marsh said.

Marsh said he'd like to see the bill amended to make sure the families already using private schools get the tax credit.

"People who are in a failing school zone and who are in a private school now should be able to take advantage of the tax credit," he said.

Marsh was less adamant about changing the formula for a failing school. He said he didn't mind if the definition of failing schools kept 10 percent of schools perpetually in failing status.

"It's my opinion you should always strive for improvement," he said. "The ones at the bottom should always strive to improve."

The House bill is unlikely to come before the full Senate before next week. It was not on the agenda for approval in any Senate committee Wednesday. Senators have yet to approve the education budget, and a backlog of local bills and procedural items is competing for lawmakers' attention.

The Senate convenes at 10 a.m. Thursday for the 27th day of its 30-day session.

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.
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