Testimony from Arise’s Kimble Forrister on proposed Accountability Act changes

Arise’s Kimble Forrister testified before a state Senate committee Wednesday, March 11, 2015, about SB 71. The bill would make numerous changes to the Alabama Accountability Act, which provides state tax breaks for donations to certain groups that give scholarships to pay for private school tuition. Here’s the full text of Forrister’s prepared remarks:

“Alabama Arise is a coalition of 150 congregations and organizations that advocate on poverty issues. Our members vote every September to choose our legislative priorities. For 2015, one of the biggest vote-getters was a proposal to do something about the Alabama Accountability Act.

“Many of our members want the Legislature to simply repeal the Accountability Act. SB 71 takes a different approach: not to repeal it, but to improve it. We appreciate Sen. Del Marsh’s attempt to make the act more transparent, targeted and accountable. Specifically, we support the effort to more precisely target educational scholarships to low-income children. We recommend setting the income cap at 185 percent of poverty instead of 200 percent, because 185 percent is the income level for reduced-price meals. It’s the accepted poverty benchmark in K-12 school data.

“When it comes to accountability and transparency, we support several revisions in SB 71. If a private school is going to receive taxpayer dollars, certainly it should be accredited by a reputable accrediting agency. Reports filed by scholarship-granting organizations with the Department of Revenue should be public documents with only the names of individual children and parents redacted. Academic credits given at private schools with public money should reflect the same number of subject hours required of public schools. And of course schools that fail to comply with the law should be prohibited from receiving tax dollars.

“Given the condition of state budgets, however, this is not the right time to increase the cap on tax-deductible donations to SGOs, nor to allow retroactive tax deductions. We do not believe the expanded definition of ‘failing school’ is in the best interest of our schools or our children when Alabama is still funding K-12 at $5.9 billion, nearly a billion dollars below 2008. The Rolling Reserve is good in theory, but it should be recalibrated so its baseline is not in the trough of the recession. Just like your professor who removes your lowest test grade, we could remove the worst year from the calculation and provide books, buses and teachers our schools desperately need.

“But back to SB 71: We recommend additional reforms to the Accountability Act. We encourage the committee to consider limiting the size of scholarships to ensure that private schools keep tuition costs in line with other schools in the market, not boost tuition to get these dollars. The law should require regular independent CPA audits of all entities receiving tax-funded contributions, both SGOs and participating schools. If a private school is to be supported by public funds, its standardized tests should be the same tests administered in public schools and approved by the Department of Education—so parents can compare apples-to-apples when choosing a school. Finally, we suggest lowering the drain on the ETF by reducing the tax credit for SGO contributions to 25 percent of tax liability. Thank you for your time.”