Alabama Accountability Act changes receive final legislative approval

A bill that would expand tax credits under the Alabama Accountability Act (AAA) received final legislative approval Wednesday and went to Gov. Robert Bentley. SB 71, sponsored by Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, is not the total repeal that Arise supported. But the bill would make significant improvements to the existing law (including some that Arise recommended), even as it allows more money that would have supported public education to go to private schools instead. Here are six changes to the AAA under SB 71:

(1) More tax credits would be available. Businesses and individuals can get tax credits for donations to organizations that grant scholarships to help eligible students attend private schools under the AAA. The original law capped the total amount of such credits at $25 million a year, but SB 71 would raise the cap to $30 million. The bill also would raise the current $7,500 annual limit on scholarship tax credits for individuals to $50,000 and let taxpayers claim credits against their 2014 taxes for donations made in 2015.

(2) Scholarship sizes would be limited. SB 71 would limit AAA scholarships to no more than $6,000 a year for elementary school students, $8,000 a year for middle school students and $10,000 a year for high school students.

(3) The income limit for scholarship eligibility would be lower. SB 71 would reduce the income eligibility limit for AAA scholarships from its prior level – 150 percent of the median household income, or nearly $65,000 in Alabama – to 185 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL), or about $44,000 for a family of four. Scholarship-granting organizations (SGOs) would have to re-evaluate students’ eligibility every other year. Students with existing scholarships could continue to receive them as long as their family income is no more than 275 percent FPL, or nearly $67,000 for a family of four.

(4) The definition of “failing school” would change. Another big difference under SB 71 is a change in the AAA’s definition of “failing school.” The bill would deem a public school to be “failing” if it is “listed in the lowest 6 percent of public K-12 schools based on the state standardized assessment in reading and math” or if the state school superintendent designates it as one. Schools that serve students with special needs are excluded from the act’s definition of “failing” schools. Students zoned for “failing” schools would have first priority for AAA scholarships until July 31 of each year, when any remaining scholarship money could go to eligible students living anywhere in Alabama.

(5) Participating schools and groups that grant AAA scholarships would face additional requirements. SB 71 would require SGOs to report quarterly on how many scholarships they give, as well as how many of them go to students who were zoned for “failing” schools or who already attended private schools. Participating schools now would have to give state achievement tests, be accredited within three years and disclose tuition rates online before each semester begins. The bill also would require an independent comparison of the test scores of students participating in the AAA scholarship program and similar students in public schools. A SGO now could be audited by the Alabama Department of Revenue (ADOR), and the ADOR would have the authority to bar a SGO or private school from participating in the tax credit scholarship program. All required annual and quarterly SGO reports would have to be made available to the public on the ADOR’s website.

(6) Unspent scholarship money must be returned to public education. SGOs would have to use any scholarship funds on hand at the start of a calendar year by the end of the following school year. Any such money not spent on AAA scholarships by then would go to the state Department of Education to help support “underperforming” schools.

By Carol Gundlach, policy analyst. Posted June 4, 2015.