Alabama families could get $6,900 in taxpayer funding for private schooling or homeschooling their children if a broad school choice bill gets approved by lawmakers.
The bill, filed in both chambers on Tuesday as SB202 and HB295, establishes the Parental Rights in Children’s Education, or PRICE Act. The key feature of the act is the creation of education savings accounts, or ESAs, that would send public funding to parents who choose to send students to homeschool or private school.
“Number one, it’s parents’ responsibility to determine what is best for their child,” said Sen. Larry Stutts, R-Tuscumbia, the Senate sponsor of the bill told AL.com in February.
“Hence the name — the Parental Rights in Children’s Education Act. And then number two, the money ought to follow the child. And number three main point, if you don’t want to participate, you don’t have to participate. If you’re satisfied with the school you’re going to, fine, leave everything just like it is.”
Stutts said his bill was aimed at helping families in rural areas in particular.
ESAs are accounts established by the state where periodic deposits are made that parents can then use to pay for goods and services related to their child’s education.
ESAs have become popular since the pandemic, with Republicans nationwide pushing for parents to have more say in their child’s education.
Accusations of public schools teaching critical race theory and providing age-inappropriate books and other instructional materials grew after school lockdowns gave parents an up-close look at what schools were teaching.
ESA programs have been established in 11 states, some limited to certain populations of students such as students with disabilities, according to Education Week
All students are eligible for ESAs in Arizona. Four more states, including Iowa, Utah, Arkansas and Florida have passed similar laws but the programs are not yet active.
What can an Alabama ESA be used for?
If the bill becomes law, money in an ESA could be used for a multitude of educational purposes, including:
- Tuition, textbooks and fees,
- Curricular materials,
- Public school classes, including extracurricular activities at the school,
- Extracurricular activities including athletics, art, music, and literature,
- Tutoring services, but not when the tutor is an immediate family member,
- Materials and fees related to vocational and career tech classes or courses related to earning a GED,
- Summer school and afterschool educational programs and materials, but not childcare,
- Therapy services such as occupational, behavioral and speech-language services,
- Tuition and fees for postsecondary courses including dual enrollment and college-level courses,
- Computer hardware and other technological devices that are used primarily for educational needs,
- Education software,
- School uniforms,
- Test prep courses,
- Costs paid to a third party for transporting students to and from educational services, and
- Any other approved expenses.
Is my Alabama student eligible for an ESA?
ESAs would be available to students entering, third, sixth, ninth and 12th grade and their siblings at the start of the 2024-25 school year. All students K-12 would be eligible for ESAs by the start of the 2026-27 school year.
Also eligible for the 2024-25 school year are students who are:
- Zoned for schools where test scores in reading and math are in the bottom 30% statewide,
- Qualify for special education,
- Homeless or in foster care,
- Have parents on active military duty, serves as a reserve member of any branch of the U.S. Armed Forces, or were killed in the line of duty,
- Are siblings of any child eligible in another category.
If a student enrolls in a public school, no further ESA funding would be available to the parent.
Students that receive scholarships through the Alabama Accountability Act are eligible for ESA funds.
Any funds remaining in the ESA when a child finishes high school can be used for postsecondary expenses.
How do parents get access to ESAs?
Parents must apply and applications will be accepted on a year-round, first-come-first-serve basis. Parents must agree to “provide a challenging education for the eligible recipient that is appropriate for his or her age and skill level.”
Parents must renew applications on a yearly basis. ESA funds are not taxable.
Which schools or education providers can receive ESAs?
Schools and education service providers that want to participate must register online in order to receive funds from ESAs.
Additionally, participating schools must provide information to parents to help them make “informed decisions,” including a comprehensive list of what is taught at which grade level and testing requirements.
A school’s educational program will not be regulated or licensed in any way by state authorities. The bill specifically states the PRICE Program will not “interfere with or limit the teaching of religious instruction.”
Alabama lawmakers removed the few regulations that existed for private schools in 2014.
Who oversees the ESA program?
A Parent Advisory Board, consisting of appointees of certain elected officials and representing private, church, parochial and homeschools, would be created by the state. Their duties include recommending changes or improvements in the ESA program to the Alabama Department of Revenue, which would administer the program.
Members of the board would meet at least quarterly and would not be paid to serve on the board. Meetings would be open to the public.
The Revenue department would be required to conduct “random audits of ESAs on an annual basis,” but no specific number of audits is included in the bill. The department would also be required to conduct audits of vendors and education service providers when “evidence of intentional and substantial misuse of ESA funds or other violations” exist.
How much would the school choice expansion cost taxpayers?
The cost to establish the program is $2 million, but there is no estimate of the total cost included with the bill. No local taxes or federal funding would be made available for ESAs.
The average amount of an ESA nationally is $9,300, according to the American Federation for Children, which supports ESAs.
About 31,000 students used ESAs nationwide last year, according to the pro-school choice organization EdChoice. More than half of those are in Florida.
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