MONTGOMERY, Alabama — Gov. Robert Bentley says he believes Alabama's new private school tax credits should not apply to students who never enrolled in a failing school, but his state tax agency will make the final determination before classes resume in August.
Exactly who will qualify for the tax credits has been in question since the Legislature passed the Alabama Accountability Act in February and Bentley signed it in March. Lawmakers passed another bill in May to make some revisions in the law, but they could not agree on how to clarify who gets the credits, particularly whether they apply to students who have attended private schools their entire academic career but are zoned for a failing public school.
The law provides for state tax credits to cover the costs when parents choose to send their children to a private school or a non-failing public school rather than a public school rated as failing. The tax credits are worth about $3,500 annually.
Bentley said in an interview Wednesday that he believes the tax credits only apply for a student who transfers out of a failing school. He said he doesn't think the law applies to a student who was zoned for a failing school but never enrolled in that school before going to a private school.
"I've read the bill at least 10 times. The way I read it is the tax credits are used to transfer out of failing schools. But we will let the legal folks at the Revenue Department make the final decision," he said.
Bentley said he plans to talk to revenue officials while they are working on rules that will apply to the new law, and he expects to have the issue cleared up "over the next few weeks."
The sponsor of the Alabama Accountability Act, Republican Rep. Chad Fincher of Semmes, shares the governor's view. He said recently a family must incur the cost of transferring to qualify for the tax credits. If there was never a transfer, no tax credits apply, he said.
Department of Revenue spokeswoman Carla Snellgrove said Thursday the tax agency is still reviewing the law. It hopes to issue proposed rules by the end of the June, and then they will be open for public review, including a public hearing in Montgomery. Public comments could lead to revisions before the rules take effect, she said.
A determination on which schools qualify as failing will come sooner. Malissa Vales-Hubert, spokeswoman for state Superintendent of Education Tommy Bice, said Friday he plans to present a list to the state school board on Thursday.
The law defines a failing school as persistently low-performing by the state Department of Education in its most recent grant application for federal school improvement funds or one that has been listed three or more times in the last six years in the lowest 6 percent of schools in the state's standardized assessment in reading or math.
After June 1, 2017, failing schools will include any school that got an "F'' during the three latest year from the state's new grading system for schools or one that got a "D'' for three consecutive years during the last four years.