Controversial flex act passes

Published 12:06 am Saturday, March 2, 2013

Andalusia’s state representative voted against his party on an education bill that Republicans praised on Thursday, while local superintendents yesterday said they were outraged at the legislature’s actions.

The original eight-page school flexibility act had been backed by superintendents, school boards and the state department of education when it passed each chamber of the legislature. But the bill tripled in size and changed in scope during a legislative conference committee meeting Thursday night.

At the end of the night, lawmakers voted to give tax credits to parents who choose to send students to private schools rather than “failing” public schools in their districts.

The new version of the bill includes these provisions:

• Parents of students who attend “failing” public schools would be allowed a tax credit of 80 percent of the tuition at a private school; those who are in “failing” districts who already send their children to private schools would be eligible for the tax credit.

• Loosely defines “failing” as a school that falls in the bottom 10 percent for standardized testing scores, or as one that earns an “F” or three consecutive “Ds” in a yet-to-be-determined state grading system.

• Private schools would not be forced to accept students;

• Parents could receive the tax credit every year until the student graduated, whether the school is considered “failing” for all of those years or not; and

• Students could also apply for scholarships to attend private schools.

A new fund in the Education Trust Fund will be set aside for these tax credits.

Rep. Mike Jones Jr., R-Andalusia, voted against the measure.

“I voted for my district,” he said. “I honored my promise that I would read and understand any bill before I would vote to support it. I did vote to support the original School Flexibility Bill (HB84) and in its original eight-page form.

“However, HB84 came back to the House last night from the conference committee as a 28-page bill, and we were given approximately one-hour to review the new bill before being asked to vote,” Jones said.

Jones said he notified Republican leadership that he would not support a “lengthy and complicated bill without having adequate time to study the bill and to communicate with the school superintendents in my district.”

“I received a text from our superintendents just prior to the vote, that made it clear that although they had supported the original bill, there was no support for the new HB84,” he said. “I honored my promise to be as knowledgeable a legislator as I can be as I vote for my district. I voted no.”

On Friday, Andalusia City Schools Superintendent Ted Watson and Opp City Schools Superintendent Michael Smithart voiced their concerns.

“I look at it as like the old movie, ‘The Good, The Bad and The Ugly,’ ” Smithart said. “The good is that we now have the flexibility that we need. We can now make decisions and implement programs that are tailored to the needs of our specific students.

“This has been much-needed, and I look forward to what we can do,” he said. “The bad is definitely the voucher program. The ugly is the manner in which the bill was passed. I supported the intent of the original bill and I do appreciate the flexibility, but this was a ruse. It seems that there are folks who have an agenda and are willing to compromise trust in order to accomplish it.”

Watson echoed Smithart’s concerns.

“I couldn’t’ support this new bill,” he said. “It is not in the best interest of our students. I am troubled by the bill because of how it turned out. On the surface, it could be helpful, but it’s not even the same bill that we all supported recently. And the voucher system kills us.

“We were looking forward to the innovative things we could do with the original bill,” he said. “The bill was supposed to allow us to seek waivers from some policies and laws to give our students better opportunities.”

Watson and Smithart both praised Jones for sticking up for local educators.

“I think Mike Jones looked out for our best interests,” Watson said. “He voted the way Covington County needed him to; not the way his party wanted. I think he got beat up pretty badly for that, and I want to thank him for a job well done.”

Smithart agreed.

“I truly want to commend Rep. Mike Jones for seeking the input of school leaders prior to the vote on flexibility and voting his conscience on the amended act,” he said.

Sen. Jimmy Holley, R-Elba, voted in favor of the bill.

Local education officials weren’t the only ones upset.

State Superintendent Tommy Bice, who had once supported the bill, withdrew his support after Republicans added to the bill.

“None of the added language to the Flex Bill has been vetted with us at the state department/state board of education,” he said in a statement he distributed to lawmakers. “There are significant negative financial implications for all of Alabama’s public schools. This is no longer the bill I gave my support to.”

Alabama Education Association Executive Secretary Henry Mabry called the move “totally unacceptable.”

“What they’re trying to do is give public money to private schools,” he said. “I was lied to. I was lied to by the Senate Pro Tem. I was lied to by lawmakers.”

Despite opposition to the bill, Gov. Robert Bentley gave his support to the new legislation.

“This is historic education reform that will benefit students and families across the state,” he said in a statement Thursday night. “Local school systems will have the flexibility to make more decisions on behalf of their students. Families will have new options if their children are stuck in failing schools. All children, regardless of their family’s income or where they live, will have the opportunity to receive a quality education.”

While Bentley is expected to sign the bill into law next week, Alabama Democrats are considering taking legal action to challenge the bill saying that they believe the conference committee violated the state’s open meetings law.