Bill would provide Alabama parents $6,000 in state funds for private school
Alabama lawmakers are expected to consider a bill that would allow parents to use about $6,000 a year in state tax dollars to send their children to private schools through education savings accounts.
Supporters of the idea say parents have a right to decide where their children attend school. They say that since parents pay taxes to help support public education, they should have access to a portion of state funds to help them pay for private school or another option they think best fits their children’s needs. The bill is called the Parental Rights in Children’s Education Act, or PRICE Act.
“Number one, it’s parents’ responsibility to determine what is best for their child,” said Sen. Larry Stutts, R-Tuscumbia, sponsor of the bill. “Hence the name — the Parental Rights in Children’s Education Act. And then number two, the money ought to follow the child. And number three main point, if you don’t want to participate, you don’t have to participate. If you’re satisfied with the school you’re going to, fine, leave everything just like it is.”
Parents could use educational savings accounts, or ESAs, for private schools, church-based schools, home schooling, or to enroll their children in a public school outside the district where they are zoned. Public and non-public schools would decide whether to participate and accept students using the ESAs. Public schools that participate could charge a fee for students outside their districts. Participating public schools could put a cap on how many ESA students they accept.
“It’s strictly left up to the schools and the parents on whether they participate or not,” Stutts said.
Stutts has not introduced the bill but has a draft version that is being prepared for the legislative session that starts March 7. Rep. Ernie Yarbrough, a Republican first-year legislator from Morgan County, is the House sponsor.
There would be a three-year phase-in with eligibility initially limited to kindergarten and grades, 3, 6, 9, and 12. Students in any grade who fall under an income cap could apply the first two years. Beginning in the fourth year, all children would be eligible for ESAs, regardless of grade or income. Parents could apply for an ESA if they intend to enroll their child in a school other than the public school where they are zoned, including any private, church or home-based school or another public school.
The annual amount the state would pay into the ESA for each child, about $6,000, is based on the annual per student cost of public education paid by the state.
The idea is not brand new. Ten states have ESA programs according to Ed Choice, which supports and tracks school choice programs. The Alabama Legislature considered an ESA bill last year. The bill stalled after winning committee approval in the Senate. A bipartisan group of lawmakers followed that up with meetings to discuss the idea, helping to keep it in the forefront for this year.
Stutts’ bill is similar to last year’s but he said it gives parents more control over how to use the ESA funds. Last year’s bill was sponsored by Sen. Del Marsh and Rep. Charlotte Meadows, who are no longer in the Legislature. Stutts believes the Legislature is more prepared to give the bill serious consideration than last year.
“I think the dynamic of that has changed,” Stutts said. “And I think people are more receptive to it now than possibly they were.”
State Superintendent Eric Mackey said he has not seen the bill but said a position he took on last year’s legislation has not changed. If nonpublic schools are to receive tax money through ESAs, those schools should be required to participate in the testing program used in public schools to assess student progress.
“I think that anybody that’s receiving public funds for K-12 education should be a part of the state testing program,” Mackey said. “How are parents going to make an informed choice? I’m not saying parents can’t (choose) a private school. Or a parochial school. That’s a parent’s responsibility. A parent choice. But if the state’s going to pay for that education, then the state needs to know what it’s getting for its money. And parents need to know how to make an informed choice. So let them take the state test so parents can see, is this school actually performing better, worse than the public school.”
Mackey said the state could pay to administer the tests in the private schools.
Stutts opposes requiring private schools that accept students with ESAs to give the state test. The PRICE Act says the state would not require any testing or impose any new regulations on participating nonpublic schools or home schools. Stutts said the state’s track record on using standardized tests is not good. For example, he said a longtime teacher told him during discussions about the bill that the state has made her job harder over the years by repeatedly changing the standardized tests it gives.
“What I want to know is are we better off than we were five years ago. Are we better off than we were 10 years ago? Are we making progress?” Stutts said.
“To me what a good education is, you learn to think, you learn to apply principles,” Stutts said. “And now the testing drives the curriculum. I think that’s got it backwards.”
Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, chair of the House Education Policy Committee, supports the concept of ESAs.
“Those parents pay taxes,” Collins said. “I don’t have a problem with those dollars following those students.”
Collins said she has read the draft version of the PRICE Act and has concerns about some parts of the bill. She said she has suggested possible changes.
Collins said she would support requiring private schools and home-based schools that accept ESA money to give their students a nationally normed test. She said it would not have to be the same tests given in Alabama public schools but that standardized testing in the participating schools is important to be accountable for taxpayers’ money.
“We collect those tax dollars to educate our children,” Collins said. “And we need to make sure that that is what is happening.”
Collins said Alabama can benefit by looking at what’s worked with ESAs in other states, an approach she said the state has followed on previous school choice initiatives. She said Alabama included strong accountability in the bill authorizing charter schools in 2015 and in the Alabama Accountability Act, which passed in 2013 and created private school scholarships funded by donors who receive a state income tax credit. Private schools that accept Alabama Accountability Act scholarships are required to give a nationally normed test, and Collins said she wants the same standards for nonpublic schools that accept students using ESAs.
Collins suggested that lawmakers could consider an income cap that would limit eligibility for ESAs but still cover middle class families. And Collins suggested limiting ESAs to certain categories of students, including those with special needs, from military families, homeless, and children who are adopted or are in foster homes. Collins said students from those targeted groups have used the ESAs most in some other states. Mississippi’s ESA program is tailored for students with special needs.
Collins said she’s had good conversations about what to include in the bill.
“As we get closer to session we’ll really understand a lot more about it. We’ll see where they’ve landed on some of those specifics that are just not quite yet clear,” Collins said.
Sally Smith, executive director of the Alabama Association of School Boards, has concerns about specific parts of the bill but also opposes the concept on which it is based, using taxpayer dollars to pay for private school.
“This basically amounts to a middle class entitlement program,” Smith said. “Under this program you’ll have parents who have elected and can pay for their children to go to private schools then getting money from state coffers to send their children to elite summer camps or specialized foreign language schools at state expense because of the very, very liberal interpretations of educational expenses.”
The bill would allow educational savings accounts to be used for tuition, textbooks and fees; extracurricular activities like athletics, music, and arts; tutoring; educational services and therapies such as occupational, behavioral, speech, and physical therapies; school uniforms; and for other purposes.
“We know that we’re not where we need to be in public education but to now fund two separate systems of public education would only dilute the revenue and effort available to continue to improve our public schools,” Smith said. “This is not in the state’s best interest.”
Stutts, who is an OB-GYN, said he attended public schools and colleges and supports public education. He believes the PRICE Act could strengthen public schools.
“I think competition makes everybody better,” Stutts said. “So it opens up competition for education because it makes private schools, it makes home schooling, it makes church schools available to people that otherwise could not afford it.”
Stutts said his wife, Jackie Stutts, was a pharmacist by profession but also was able to pursue a love for teaching in a private school. She taught high school chemistry for 14 years at Covenant Christian School in Tuscumbia.
“We had a lot of parents at that school that worked an extra job to pay the tuition. And so this would be a game-changer for them,” Stutts said.
About 97,000 students in K-12 attend non-public schools in Alabama, according to the fiscal analysis of last year’s bill by the Legislative Services Agency. If that number of students received ESA’s the cost to the Education Trust Fund would be more than $500 million.
Stutts said the PRICE Act would probably increase the number of students in private school but does not think that would be on a massive scale.
“I don’t expect a drastic change because if you ask most people, are you satisfied with where your children are going to school, they’ll probably say yes,” Stutts said. “Particularly in high school where they’re already involved in extracurricular activities and have an established friend group. So I don’t think there will be that much movement at the high school level initially. But it just gives them the option. It’s about parents have a right to choose where their children go to school.”
If money remains in a student’s ESA at the end of the year, the PRICE Act says it in the student’s account. The state would make no more annual payments to the account after a student graduates from high school. But if a student has remaining money in their ESA after graduation, they could use that money for college or other educational purposes until age 21.
Stutts said he intends to have his bill ready to consider by early in the legislative session.
“I know we’re going to have to talk about, debate it, and there will be some amendments offered,” Stutts said. “And I’m open to that. If somebody’s got ideas to make it better, I’m very open to making it better. But we don’t want to lose the fundamental principles of the bill.”
“Again, the main premise is that it’s a fundamental right of parents to make these choices for their children. And the state portion of the money follows the child.”