‘Open Schools Act’ would allow enrollment in any Alabama system; Public hearing Tuesday

‘Open Schools Act’ would allow enrollment in any Alabama system; Public hearing Tuesday

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

Newly filed legislation would allow K-12 students enroll in any school in the state — for a fee.

Senate Bill 365 by Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, says that starting in the 2022-2023 school year, students from outside a system can enroll in its schools. A student enrolling in a school outside of his or her district of residence “shall pay the enrolling school district an amount that is equal to the per student share of the net local tax revenue” as determined by the State Department of Education.

Local school boards would be required to adopt application processes and “shall consider” giving low-performing students from failing schools, as determined by the Alabama Accountability Act, enrollment priority.

Marsh filed the bill, called the Open Schools Act, on Thursday. It’s been assigned to the Senate Education Policy Committee and a public hearing is set for 10:45 a.m.Tuesday.

Marsh, one of the Senate’s biggest advocates for school choice, could not be reached for comment. Several education group leaders and State Superintendent Eric Mackey told Alabama Daily News they saw the bill for the first time late last week.

Mackey on Friday said his department was not involved in the drafting of the bill and that staff members were reviewing it for discussions this week.

Sally Smith, executive director of the Alabama Association of School Boards, said her organization would oppose the bill. She said some school systems already have the open enrollment described in the bill.

“We think it should be a local decision whether school districts would like to accept students from outside the system,” Smith said. “… School boards have the option to have this policy, they shouldn’t be forced to have this policy.”

The bill says schools do not have to:

  • Make alterations in the structure of a requested school or to make alterations to the arrangement or function of rooms within a requested school;
  • Establish and offer any particular program in a school if the program is not currently offered in that school;
  • Alter or waive any established eligibility criteria for participation in a particular program, including age requirements, course prerequisites and required levels of performance;
  • Provide transportation for out-of-system students.

Smith said the bill may not be a viable option for many families if they have to pay a fee and provide transportation to the school they wish to attend.

Local tax support to systems in some of the state’s most rural systems in recent years has been less than $1,000 per student per year. Mountain Brook City Schools has the highest, at about $7,000 a year per student.

Marsh’s bill says systems may deny enrollment to resident and non-resident for specific reasons, including:

  • A lack of space or teaching staff at requested school, in which case priority will be given to resident students;
  • The requested school does not offer appropriate programs or is not structured or equipped with the necessary facilities to meet special needs of the student or does not offer a particular program requested;
  • The student does not meet the established eligibility criteria for participation in a particular program, including age requirements, course prerequisites and required levels of performance;
  • A desegregation plan is in effect for the school district and the denial is necessary in order to enable compliance with the plan;
  • The student has been expelled, is in the process of being expelled, or may be legally denied permission to enroll.