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School choice bill moves forward in Senate

On Tuesday, the Alabama Senate Committee on Finance, Taxation, and Education voted to give a favorable report to a bill that would give parents in the state additional school options and financial aid pathways.

The CHOOSE Act is sponsored by state Rep. Danny Garrett (R-Trussville) and is being pushed through the Senate by state Sen. Arthur Orr (R-Decatur), who chairs the committee.

The bill creates an education savings account of up to $7,000 that parents can use to send their children to private schools or out-of-district public schools. Additionally, up to $2,000 is available for educational programs for parents who homeschool their children.

The bill is a top policy priority for Alabama Governor Kay Ivey. Nick Moore is a policy advisor to the governor. Moore outlined a number of changes to the House bill Tuesday.

“Choose Act funds cannot carry over more than $500 million into the next year,” Moore said of one of the changes. The law requires that participating children be legal residents of the United States and requires that participating private schools be located within the state of Alabama. Online schools must be based in Alabama or have significant connections within the state.

The law requires participating private schools to share student achievement tests with the Alabama Department of Revenue and parents.

RELATED: Alabama House passes bill to give students, families more educational options

“Will it ever be made available to the public? Or is it just a matter between the Department of Revenue and parents,” asked Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton (D-Greensboro).

“This agreement does not mean it will be publicly reported,” Moore said.

“This is about empowering parents and helping their children be in a position to thrive,” Moore said.

“There are an estimated 75,000 private school students in the state,” Moore said, “and 726,000 public K-12 students in the state.”

Moore explained that the average public school student in Alabama receives $12,000 a year in local, state and federal funding. Moore explained that the program does not change the treatment of special education students under federal law.

“The parents who are going to adopt this program, the parents who are asking for this program, they want their children to have an opportunity,” said Sen. Kirk Hatcher (D-Montgomery).

“My parents sent me to private school, and they paid for it,” Hatcher said.

“These resources may be in the state right now, but who knows what will happen,” Hatcher said. “I'm concerned that if you want to decapitate public schools, you should at least say that, so it's how we deal with it.”

“Money may not be the panacea for problems. But I know what would happen if we didn't have it,” Hatcher said of concerns about the bill.

The Senate held a hearing on the bill last week, with supporters and opponents speaking about the bill's strengths and concerns.

The committee voted 10-3 to give the bill a favorable report.

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