Bentley signed an executive amendment today seeking a two-year hold on tax credits and scholarships created under the Alabama Accountability Act, which the Legislature passed in February.
The Accountability Act would offer tax credits of about $3,500 to parents of students zoned for "failing" schools if they move their children to non-failing public schools or private schools. State school officials have not yet released a list of schools deemed to be failing.
The Accountability Act sparked criticism from teachers' groups and some school administrators because of its potential impact on public schools — which are funded by income and sales taxes — and a seeming lack of clarity about what constitutes a "failing school." Some school districts also said they didn't have room to accept students who would transfer under the Accountability Act.
Last week, the Legislature passed a bill, HB658, designed to address some of those concerns. The governor has yet to sign or veto the bill. Under state law, the governor can return a bill to lawmakers with executive amendment — changes that lawmakers must make if they hope to get the governor's signature.
Bentley's office released a statement Wednesday announcing that he would issue executive amendments calling for a two-year delay in implementing the tax credits. That two-year delay would have to be approved by the Legislature on Monday — the last day of its 2013 session — in order to make HB658 state law.
The statement quotes Bentley saying he was seeking the delay in order to give failing schools time to improve. He also said it was the fiscally responsible thing to do; the state is still trying to repay more than $400 million borrowed from the state's Rainy Day Trust Fund, money that must be repaid out of the state's education budget by the end of fiscal 2015.
“If the Legislature accepts my executive amendment, we can help schools improve while also helping ensure the state meets its financial obligations,” the statement quotes Bentley as saying. “I believe this is the most fiscally-responsible approach.”
In a statement released shortly after Bentley's announcement, the Alabama Education Association asked why Bentley didn't simply scrap the Accountability Act altogether.
"We agree that this is a horrible mistake for Alabama families and our public schools," AEA executive director Henry Mabry said in a prepared statement. "But the Governor's two-year moratorium begs the question, how can a policy that is wrong today be right in two years?"
State Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said he was "disappointed" that the governor chose to add amendments to the bill. Marsh said he was consulting with other members of the Senate Republican caucus to gague whether they'd support the governor's changes.
"I've already talked to some of the caucus members," Marsh said. "Right now, the opinions are mixed."
State officials have estimated the cost of the program at anywhere between $30 million and $70 million in the first year. If Bentley's two-year delay were approved, the state would likely have that money on hand to repay the Rainy Day Fund, which some Republicans have said should be a priority in the state budget.
However, one of those Republicans, Sen. Trip Pittman of Daphne, said Wednesday that he’d rather see the tax credits made available now.
“I think it’s important to go ahead and implement the Accountability Act,” Pittman said. “This is about kids in failing schools, and it’s something we need to deal with.”
Anniston City Schools superintendent Joan Frazier said she welcomed the idea of a two-year delay.
"The delay is a healthy option in that it gives us a chance to examine the effect of a law that was put together pretty quickly," Frazier said.
Frazier said she did not know whether any Anniston school will be on the "failing" list. State school officials have said the Accountability Act, as originally passed, would likely place about 135 schools on the list statewide. Under a new definition in HB658, school officials have said, the number of schools on the list would likely be lower than 75.
The Accountability Act is already law, and HB658 would change that law. If the Legislature accepts Bentley's amendments Monday, the two-year delay would go into effect on Bentley's signing of the bill. If the Legislature rejects Bentley's changes, the tax credits would still be in place, without a two-year delay.
"In the worst-case scenario, we've still got the act we passed," Marsh said.
Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.