Alabama Voucher Law Passes Amid Major Controversy

Last Updated: May 30, 2013

This article appeared in the May 2013 Rural Policy Matters.

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What began as a flexibility bill for public schools was suddenly changed by Republican lawmakers into a full-fledged voucher program to support private schools in Alabama.

In March, a bill originating from the Alabama House was written to allow school systems to deviate from certain regulatory requirements after requesting permission from the State Board of Education. The bill was voted out to a House-Senate conference committee. Republican members left the committee meeting then returned with a heavily amended bill, the Private School Voucher Act. That development led to near-chaos at the statehouse, with lawmakers shouting at one another and opponents of the changes expressing disbelief at what had happened. But the bill was quickly put to vote and passed the legislature.

The Alabama Education Association (AEA) sued, saying that Alabama’s open meetings laws were violated because the two Democratic members of the conference committee had purposely not been told about the meeting where the changes were made. A lower court issued a temporary injunction stopping the law from going into effect. But the Alabama Supreme Court overturned that ruling as premature and Governor Robert Bentley, who reportedly admitted knowing about the changes several days before they were made, signed the bill into law.

The law will give up to $3,500 in tax credits per student to families whose children are zoned to a “failing” school. The law will also provide scholarship support for families with incomes too low to qualify for the full tax credit. The credit can also be used to offset the cost of a transfer to another public school.

This income tax credit is equal to 80% of the state per-pupil spending. There are no income guidelines on the program and students currently in private schools are eligible. The credits would be paid for from the state’s public education budget. Many of the state’s private schools were established in 1970 in opposition to federal desegregation orders.

The state-supported scholarship program is being set up for students who cannot afford private school tuition. Businesses could receive tax credits up to $25 million and individuals could receive tax credits up to $7,500 per taxpayer or married couple for donations to the program.

Language in the law specifies that the lowest-scoring 10% of Alabama schools will be designated as failing and includes several other measures by which schools can be judged as failing. The law also allows the state superintendent of education to designate any school as failing for any reason.

Opponents of the new law plan to challenge the process again and to challenge the constitutionality of the voucher program and its impact on desegregation plans.

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Text of the bill with Alabama Education Association’s comments:


Read more from the May 2013 Rural Policy Matters.