St. Clair delegation pleased with revised bill
by WILL HEATH
ST. CLAIR COUNTY — The county’s legislative delegation applauded a “school flexibility” bill that passed both houses late Thursday.

“I have had one of the best 24 hours I’ve had in my career as a legislator,” said Sen. Scott Beason, R-Gardendale. “I think you’re going to see some really good things come out of what we did (Thursday) night.”

Beason and other Republicans who represent portions of St. Clair County in Montgomery voted in favor of the Alabama Accountability Act of 2013, which drew heated discussion on both sides of the aisle. Originally sold as a bill that would allow “flexibility” for local school boards, the bill changed Thursday to add a provision allowing students in “failing” schools to receive income tax credits to attend a non-failing school. Additionally, individuals or businesses who donate to a nonprofit that provides scholarships for students to attend a non-failing school will also be able to receive tax credits.

Rep. Jim McClendon, R-Springville, said the bill will have little to no affect on any local system.

“The voucher system and the option to move the children only applies to the very worst performing schools in the state,” McClendon said. “Here’s the key, and here’s what I told our superintendent: this voucher issue and the ability to move students out of underperforming schools, will not affect St. Clair County or the Pell City systems at all.

“We do not have any schools on the underperforming list. They (on the list) are truly the worst schools in Alabama. But those parents in those schools will have an option.”

Rep. Mack Butler, R-Rainbow City, himself a veteran of the Etowah County Board of Education, said the legislation will also hold failing schools to a higher standard, as well.

“So many of these (failing) schools are producing students who can’t read or write,” Butler said. “Hopefully all the schools are going to step up. I see it as positive; we don’t have all the answers yet.

“I really think we made history, and I think the proof will be in the pudding down the road. The schools that have been continually failing over and over, we know which ones they are. This is going to really put some pressure. We’ve got to do something more than the status quo.”

According to provisions provided in the legislation, a student wishing to attend a different school would receive 80 percent in income tax rebates, to attend a separate school. Additionally, scholarship funds could be made available should the student wish to attend a private school.

“It’s critical that we not only provide innovative flexibility to teachers and administrators, but also to parents and children trapped in failing schools. Too often parents and children get lost in these legislative discussions,” said Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, in a press release. “What we’ve done here today unlocks the doors of choice for parents in failing schools. Who better to decide what’s best for children than the ones who raise them?”

Local school superintendents Jenny Seals (St. Clair), John Moore (Leeds) and Bobby Hathcock (Pell City) were reluctant to comment, since they had yet to read the legislation. State superintendent Tommy Bice publicly dropped his support of the legislation, while the Alabama Education Association called it “totally anti-public education.”

Still, local legislators maintain the benefit will come in the long run.

“There’s mixed emotions, because you’re always scared of the unknown,” said Rep. Dickie Drake, R-Leeds. “I think everybody’s going to like it. It gives the parents a choice rather than a dead-end road at a failing school. I think this time next year, people are going to realize the benefits of it.”

Changes in the legislation came due to a conference committee, which was convened owing to differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill. Democrat representatives complained that the bill grew in size from 8 to 27 pages. Rep. Randy Wood said Republicans were “familiar” with changes to the legislation.

“The way the rules are, that’s the way it works,” said Wood. “When it was the other side in control, they did the same thing to us. At that time, we always griped and said it wasn’t right, but they did it anyway. Now the shoe’s on the other foot. It’s funny how the tide’s turned.

“The system in Alabama’s not perfect, but it’s a pretty good system. If the federal government had a system like we do in Alabama, they wouldn’t be in the situation they’re in now. We have a good system in Alabama.”

Contact Will Heath at wheath@thestclairtimes.com.

© 2013