In 2013, Alabama passed a school choice plan called the Alabama Accountability Act, which allows low-income students to apply for scholarships to attend better schools, including private schools. As Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh (R-Anniston) put it, “The program gives more parents control of their child’s education, empowering them to attend great schools, regardless of their income. “
According to EdChoice.org, 3,885 Alabama students took advantage of the plan this school year, and reports indicate that some 80% of these children were from African American families.
Like other states with similar plans, Alabama’s law allows nonprofit “scholarship granting organizations” (SGO’s) to receive donations, which are used to provide the scholarships to the eligible families. Whoever donates to these SGO’s receives a dollar-for-dollar tax credit, encouraging charitable giving that allows low-income parents to send their children to better schools. To qualify, families can’t earn more than about $45,000 a year for a family of four.
What’s unique about Alabama’s plan is that it also gives a refundable tax credit (similar to a voucher) directly to qualifying families to help them attend schools that better suit their child’s needs.
This year, Senator Marsh tried to bolster the Alabama Accountability Act by encouraging more donations to SGOs. The purpose wasn’t so much to grow the program as it was to protect current participants from losing their scholarships. “The worry is, if we don’t give folks proper incentive to make donations, children could lose their scholarships and go back into underperforming schools,” Marsh said. In short, the change would have allowed donors to claim larger tax credits when they give, incentivizing more participation in funding the scholarships.
“The vast majority of these children are from African American families and this plan empowers them to receive the education they deserve. Less than one-half of one percent of the education budget (ETF) goes to this plan, and I think that’s a small price to pay to ensure that some of the most underserved families in Alabama have the ability to give their children the same chance to succeed as everyone else,” Marsh said.
While the bill securing these scholarships passed in the Senate—the body over which Marsh presides—it failed in the House. “False information was swirling around the lobby of the State House in the final days of the session that portrayed this issue untruthfully,” Marsh said. “That was just part of an intense effort to kill a bill that would’ve protected these children.
“Unfortunately, a number of lawmakers caved to the pressure, even though it hurt the children they serve. I just find it baffling to see people voting against this when the future of thousands of kids is on the line. That’s not an indictment on any teachers or schools, it’s just the reality that these children deserve the same chance to receive a quality education as kids from more affluent areas,” Marsh concluded.
The state’s largest teachers’ union, the Alabama Education Association (AEA), and the Alabama Association of School Boards and School Superintendents implored legislators to vote against the bill, through phone calls, lobbying, and public messaging. The AEA has opposed the program since it became law, filing a series of legal actions against the Alabama Accountability Act, most of which were ultimately turned back by the Alabama Supreme Court.