School officials: We had ‘no input’ on school bill

Published 10:02 am Monday, March 4, 2013

While state Republican lawmakers lauded an education bill as ground-breaking, state school officials were crying foul Friday and Democrats were considering a lawsuit to stop it.

An eight-page school flexibility bill that had been backed by superintendents, school boards and the state Department of Education tripled in size after a legislative conference committee Thursday night — and lawmakers ended up voting to give tax credits to parents who want to send students to private school rather than “failing” public schools in their districts.

“It happened so fast, all we got were bits and pieces,” said Escambia County Schools Superintendent Randall Little, who said he and other school officials were alerted to the changes on Thursday evening and quickly asked to lobby their senators and representatives not to vote for the new bill.

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“We had no input whatsoever,” Little said. “We did not even get a copy of the revised bill.”

The state teachers union, the state Association of School Boards and even state Superintendent Tommy Bice immediately withdrew their support of the bill after the conference committee changed it from legislation that was intended to give school districts more flexibility over school matters.

State Rep. Alan Baker, R-Brewton, state Sen. Marc Keahey, D-Grove Hill, and state Rep. Mike Jones, R-Andalusia — all of whom represent Escambia County in the Legislature — voted against the bill.

“I supported the original bill,” Baker said. “What came out of conference committee was very different. I did not feel there was adequate time to get feedback from those affected, and I did not feel there was enough time to assess the financial impact.”

Gov. Robert Bentley, though, hailed 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.”

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.

• 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.

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

The bill stipulates that the Education Trust Fund will have a new fund set aside for the tax credits.

Little and Brewton City Schools Superintendent Lynn Smith said that would hurt public school systems, because, in essence, the state dollars will follow the student.

“It will take money away from public schools,” Smith said.

School officials also were not sure on Friday what schools would be designated as “failing.”

“With all of the accountability and assessment changes now taking place and will take place this year and next year, specific criteria have not been finalized by the SDE to determine the status level of schools,” Little said. “Of course, I hope that when these parameters are approved, promulgated, and implemented, none of our schools will be categorized as ‘failing.’ I do know that when these new assessment benchmarks are established, they will not be absolutes as AYP has been in the past — all or nothing.”

Baker said the conference committee — made up of three members each from the House and Senate — was chosen by the Senate president pro tem and the House speaker.

Democrats said Friday they believe the conference committee violated the state’s open meetings law.

“They violated the law and violated the people’s trust and this bill will be a tragedy for our students,” said Rep. Thomas Jackson, R-Thomasville. “The way this bill was passed was deceitful and unlawful, in violation of the state open meetings law.”

Smith and Little were also upset by the way the new bill was passed.

“It amazes me how business is done,” Smith said. “You’d think we would do a better job than the federal government.”

“The skids were greased by the legislative leadership,” Little said. “Once they got that, it was a railroad train locomotive.”