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School choice proposal goes to study group

February 19, 2022 GMT

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — A school choice bill that could give parents $5,500 in state funds to send a child to private school is headed to a study group for negotiations after opposition from some education organizations and lawmakers.

Republican Sen. Del Marsh said the Republican majority leaders have put together a group to look at his legislation. He said he is optimistic they can develop a compromise.

The Parents’ Choice Act, as introduced by Marsh, would establish a path for parents to tap state money normally used on their child’s public school education — about $5,500 per student per year — and use it to pay for private school, a public school outside their district, home schooling expenses or other alternate education paths. The program would cost up to $537 million annually, according to an estimate from the Legislative Fiscal Office.

Marsh, who has been a vocal proponent of school choice options during his time in the Alabama Legislature, said the state’s constantly lagging test scores show a drastic change is needed.

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“We all acknowledge we’ve got a problem. If you look at our test scores, ACT scores, we’ve got to do something. I think my bill is a good approach at giving parents more decision in their children’s education,” Marsh said.

Marsh said the public system “controls all of education in the state, and ”this is a first attempt to give parent more choice.”

The Senate Education Policy Committee approved the bill earlier this month, but it drew heavy criticism from some education groups over the diversion of money from public schools.

“The Parent’s Choice Bill is nothing but a shell game of a voucher program to divert funding from our community schools. Alabama’s students and educators cannot afford to take almost a half a billion dollar hit from public education,” the Alabama Education Association, which represent public school teachers and employees, said in a statement about the bill.

Study groups in the past have become graveyards for contentious proposals, and Marsh said he is concerned about that. “I’ve got commitments that this is not just trying to bury the bill,” Marsh said.

Under Marsh’s bill, the program would initially be limited to low-income families but would be available to everyone in the 2024-2025 school year. South Carolina lawmakers are looking at a smaller school choice proposal for low-income and military families.

Alabama Senate President Pro Tem Greg Reed said Thursday that the “negotiations are moving forward.”

“Obviously, the bill has got a lot of controversy. Those that are very much for it, are passionate about it,” Reed said, adding that there is equal passion among people who oppose it.