Six things to know about the Accountability Act changes that the Alabama Senate passed

A bill that would expand tax credits under the Alabama Accountability Act (AAA) passed 20-14 in the state Senate on Tuesday night. SB 71, sponsored by Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, now goes to the House. Below are six major aspects of the AAA that would change 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. Current law caps the total amount of such credits at $25 million a year, but SB 71 would raise the cap to $30 million. (Marsh originally sought to lift the cap to $35 million, but he accepted an amendment by Sen. Greg Reed, R-Jasper, to reduce that amount.) The bill also would erase the current $7,500 annual limit on scholarship tax credits for individuals and let taxpayers claim credits against their 2014 taxes for donations made this year.

(2) Scholarship sizes would be limited. AAA scholarships could be 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 under SB 71. Arise’s Kimble Forrister suggested during Senate committee testimony on March 11 that lawmakers limit the size of AAA scholarships “to ensure that private schools keep tuition costs in line with other schools in the market, not boost tuition to get these dollars.”

(3) The income limit for scholarship eligibility would drop. SB 71 would reduce the income eligibility limit for AAA scholarships from its current 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. Forrister on March 11 recommended a limit of 185 percent FPL, which is the threshold for eligibility for reduced-price school meals, as a way “to more precisely target educational scholarships to low-income children.” (Marsh’s original bill would have set the limit at 200 percent FPL.) Scholarship-granting organizations (SGOs) would have to re-evaluate students’ eligibility every other year.

(4) “Failing school” would have a different meaning. Another big difference under SB 71 would be 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. 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 would have to give state achievement tests, be accredited within three years and disclose tuition rates online before each semester begins.

(6) Unspent scholarship money would be returned to public education. SGOs would have to use any scholarship funds on hand at the start of a calendar year by no later than June 30 of the following year. Under Marsh’s bill, any such money not spent on AAA scholarships by then would go to the state Department of Education to help support “underperforming” schools.

By Chris Sanders, communications director. Posted March 31, 2015.