School choice supporters rally for bill

School choice supporters rally for bill

By MADDISON BOOTH, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – The steps of the Alabama State House on Tuesday looked a bit like a classroom as students from private, charter and homeschools and their parents and teachers rallied for more school choice options.

Before they entered the State House, dressed in bright yellow shirts and looking to speak with their lawmakers, Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth spoke to the group.

“Alabama has 75 failing (schools),” Ainsworth said, referring to the designation created under state law. “Right now it’s time to fund students, not systems.”

Rep. Charlotte Meadows, R-Montgomery, said that every child is different and needs to learn differently. She’s sponsoring the Parent’s Choice Act, which in its current form would let state dollars follow students to private schools or alternate public schools.

Many of the students in attendance were students from Renaissance School of the Eastern Shore, a private school in Daphne that specializes in multi-sensory learning for kids with special needs.

Mary Eubanks was in the crowd with her great-grandson, who attends Renaissance School. She said three other schools told the parents they couldn’t help the boy’s behavioral issues.

“But since we’ve brought him to Renaissance, it’s been a complete turnaround,” Eubanks said. Charter schools are public schools that operate outside traditional schools’ structures.

Meadows this week told Alabama Daily News work is still being done on the school choice bill she and Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, sponsored.

“I would say it’s been slowed down, but not done, not dead yet,” Meadows said.

She said she’s still working to get the “best bill possible” to provide education savings accounts to Alabamians. Parents could use the taxpayer funds to send their children to private schools or to alternate public schools that accept them.

She said she hopes to get the bill in committee in a few weeks. Marsh’s Senate version cleared committee in that chamber but hasn’t gotten a vote on the floor. Marsh last week said significant changes would be made to the legislation, including removing homeschool students from the state funding option and limiting availability next year to incoming kindergarten students. Each year, a new incoming class would be eligible.

As approved in a Senate committee earlier this month Marsh’s bill would have allowed more than $5,000 per year in state support to any student attending private or homeschools. A fiscal note on the bill said that when fully implemented in the 2024-2025 school year, it could send as much as $537 million from the Education Trust Fund to education savings accounts that parents could use to send their children to alternate schools.

That price tag caused significant pushback from public school groups.

State Superintendent Eric Mackey on Tuesday said that he hasn’t had recent discussions with lawmakers about the bill and potential changes. He said his main concern about the legislation has been ensuring that there is accountability for state resources, wherever they go.

“To me, it doesn’t make sense that we would use state dollars for programs where we have no information on how that money is being spent,” he said.

In committee earlier this month, Marsh did amend the bill to require participating students take the same standardized tests public school students do.

That amendment caused complaints from homeschool groups.

Meadows on Monday said she’s still trying to get education savings accounts to as many Alabamians as possible, as quickly as possible.

“The (education savings account) is the best way I can see to provide competition to local schools,” Meadows said. “It’s a really sound school choice mechanism.”

The bill is similar to legislation signed into law in West Virginia last year.

Alabama Daily News reporter Mary Sell contributed to this report.

Editor’s note: This story was updated to say that Renaissance School of the Eastern Shore is a private school.