In her recent “State of the State” address, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey announced that her top legislative priority is passing the education savings account (ESA) bill as school choice gains more prominence in conservative-led states.
“Passing an education savings account bill that works for families and for Alabama is my number one legislative priority, and I am proud to have our education budget chairmen, Senator Arthur Orr and Representative Danny Garrett, carry the CHOOSE Act,” Ms. Ivey, a Republican, said in her address to the legislature.
Ivey’s ProposalThe proposal would place Alabama in line with other southern states that are also pushing for creating or expanding school choice in their states, such as Tennessee to the north.
In that state, Republican Gov. Bill Lee proposed to expand the school choice program in his state from the largest four counties to all 95 counties last year in a media event where Republican Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders joined him. Ms. Sanders signed a universal school choice bill into law last year in her first months in office.
Ms. Ivey’s proposal would provide up to $7,000 per child enrolled at an accredited, participating private or public school through an education savings account funded by a new refundable income tax credit.
The proposal also includes a provision for families who prefer to homeschool children, with up to $2,000 per child for educational expenses, and a $4,000 cap for families with more than one homeschooled child.
As the governor recently outlined during her State of the State address, Alabama families would begin to participate in the program in the 2025-2026 academic year. The governor’s office explained that the program would prioritize students with unique needs and their siblings for enrollment each year.
“Because of this, I believe we have crafted school choice/education savings account legislation that addresses the needs of an important segment of the needs of our school children while preserving the fiscal integrity of our public schools,” Mr. Orr said.
Ms. Ivey’s administration said the program would stay in line with the state’s “strong record of being fiscally conservative.”
“In the initial rollout for the first two years, families with an income up to 300 percent of federal poverty level will be eligible,” a press release from Ivey stated. “In the third year and beyond, any Alabama family will be eligible, placing the CHOOSE program on a pathway to becoming truly universal as the program grows.”
Mr. Garrett, the House sponsor, said school choice is needed in Alabama for the next generation of students.
The CHOOSE ActThe CHOOSE Act will require the state legislature to allocate at least $100 million per year for education savings accounts. Governor Ivey’s administration has already reserved $50 million for the 2024 fiscal year education trust fund in the budget, according to her office.
Ms. Ivey believes there is strong support for approval of the initiative, with the Senate President and Speaker of the House also being co-sponsors.
“Children are gifts from God, and they are the future of our great state,” Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Reed said. “As legislators, one of our greatest responsibilities is to allocate resources in fiscally responsible ways to ensure that kids in our communities have every opportunity to be successful and achieve their dreams. A family’s zip-code should not be the primary indicator of a child’s educational outcome, and we are committed to giving Alabama families the ability to make the best decisions regarding their children’s educations.”
Speaker Nathaniel Ledbetter had similar sentiments, noting that school choice proposals gave parents options “without negatively impacting Alabama’s public education system.”
“After working with the governor’s office on the CHOOSE Act for the last year, I feel that we have come up with a strong piece of legislation that accomplishes just that,” Mr. Ledbetter said in a press release. “I appreciate Governor Ivey’s leadership on this important issue, and I am proud to co-sponsor this legislation in the House.”
Ms. Ivey continued, noting she believed the act would further protect “religious liberty and academic freedom” through straightforward program rules, a standardized test aligned to the school’s curriculum, as well as a nationally recognized aptitude assessment of the school’s choice.
PushbackAs seen in other school choice campaigns nationwide, critics argue that school choice or voucher programs negatively impact public schools and direct money away from them.
The state’s House Democratic Caucus noted opposition to education trust funds or savings accounts, referring to them as “vouchers” and noting their perceived impact on Alabama’s public schools.
In a post on social media platform X, before the beginning of this year’s legislative session, the caucus stated, “In 2024, it’s time to protect and increase public education funding for your children. Public dollars should be for public education.”
In a graphic attached to the post, the caucus said that “school choice voucher schemes” would: defund public education, require no accountability for performance, and leave rural Alabama districts behind.
Vice-chair of the caucus, Democrat State Rep. Barbara Drummond, remained cautiously optimistic about school choice proposals in a January interview with Alabama outlet 1819 News.
“As a caucus, we are urging everybody, with all the conversation and the voices that we’re hearing, we think that they need to look at the economics of it,” Drummond told the outlet. “And then the issue needs to be analyzed for its effectiveness, and we’ve not seen any data where It has been effective. This is an investment that we’re going to be making. And if the dollar is not going to be giving any kind of high yield, why are we putting public dollars into something that we don’t know if it’s going to work.”