Lawmakers held a public hearing Tuesday on a 24-page bill by Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, that would change a number of provisions in the Accountability Act, a sweeping school tax-credit bill signed into law less than two months ago.
Under its current wording, the Accountability Act would offer tax credits of around $3,500 to parents of students in "failing" school systems who choose to send their children to private schools or non-failing public schools.
That bill won praise from some school choice advocates, who said it provided a way out of underperforming public schools. Critics took it to task for taking revenue from public schools to give to private institutions. And school leaders were baffled by the bill’s multiple definitions of "failing" public schools.
Marsh's new bill, titled SB360, would clarify or change some of those issues, the senator said. The bill would require transferees to seek out a non-failing public school in their district before looking to an out-of-district school. It would allow both public and private schools to refuse out-of-district transfer students. It would ban private schools from getting the tax credit if they're not accredited.
Perhaps most significantly, the bill would offer a new definition of a "failing" school. One definition in the current Accountability Act would place the 10 percent of schools with lowest academic performance on the "failing" schools list. School administrators have said that would give Alabama roughly 150 failing schools on a perpetual basis.
“We're going to wind up with a number of schools listed as failing that do not deserve to be there," said Tommy Bice, the state superintendent of education. Bice said many of the schools in the bottom 10 percent are "on an aggressive trajectory of improvement."
Marsh's new bill would drop the 10 percent requirement in favor of a new school grading system beginning with the 2017-18 school year, and would set up a formula that would list schools as "failing" only after they're in the bottom 10 percent for three years in a row.
Marsh said the measure would decrease the number of schools on the "failing" list.
"We don't know what that number is, but one thing we know is, it's under 150," he said.
With fewer schools on the failing list, the state could see a lessened cost from the Accountability Act. A budget committee in the House of Representatives has estimated that the tax credit could cost the state's education budget $50 million to $60 million in revenue — about 1 percent of the money the state spends on education.
Bice said a new formula in Marsh’s bill would increase the amount of the tax credit each family could get, but he wasn’t sure how big the increase would be.
It's still not clear how many parents would actually get that tax credit. Most of the earlier projections of the Accountability Act's cost were based on the assumption that parents of children now in private school, in failing districts, would get the credit.
Marsh said twice in Tuesday's hearing that parents now using private schools would, in fact, not get the credit. In one comment, he said that was the interpretation of the Department of Education. Later he said it was the interpretation of the Department of Revenue.
Bice said he did not believe the tax credit would apply to students already in private school.
“My interpretation is that it would not,” he said. “My understanding of the intent of the bill is that it was intended to help children in failing schools have an option.”
Sally Howell, director of the Association of Alabama School Boards, said her organization didn't think the wording was clear, but supported the idea of not giving tax credits to families already using private schools.
"We think it's going to be litigated," she said. She said a lawsuit wouldn't come from the association, but might come from parents who originally believed they would get the tax credit.
Sen. Dick Brewbaker, R-Montgomery, told the audience at the hearing that he would introduce an amendment to the bill to allow students already in private schools to get the tax credit.
School superintendents spoke in favor of some of Marsh's proposed changes, such as the provision that would allow schools to reject out-of-district students. Some superintendents had expressed concern that the Accountability Act would require them to accept transfer students even if they are over capacity.
But superintendents maintained their opposition to the original Accountability Act, saying that it drew money away from the school system in a time when transportation costs are rising and textbooks need replacing.
"The parent gets the tax credit, another school gets the child, and I get the bill," said Monroe County Schools Superintendent Kathy Murphy.
Anniston City Schools Superintendent Joan Frazier asked lawmakers to provide clarity for school systems still under desegregation orders.
Frazier has said in the past that a "failing" school designation in Anniston would pose a conflict, because a court order requires students in public schools to attend the school they're zoned for.
"I'm going to want to know, with all due respect, whether I'm able to negate a federal mandate," Frazier said.
Frazier challenged the tone of the conversation about struggling schools, saying the "failing" label wasn't the best way to motivate people to excellence.
"I'm staying away from the word 'failing.'" she said. "As a former teacher, I didn't use that in the classroom, and I'm not going to use it here."
Marsh's new bill was initially scheduled for a committee vote Wednesday, until Howell, of the school boards' association, asked for a week for school leaders to consider the bill and suggest changes.
Marsh agreed to the request.
"We've got plenty of time, and we also want to get it right," he said.
Capitol and statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter: @TLockette_Star.