The Alabama House of Representatives passed the "school flexibility" bill Thursday by a vote of 65-37. It now goes to the Alabama Senate for consideration.
The School Flexibility Act of 2013, if it became law, would allow local school districts to apply for waivers from state regulations from the State Board of Education.
Republicans in the Alabama State House have been pushing the education reform measure since the session started February 5.
"We're finally putting the students first with an education reform" Rep. Chad Fincher, (R – Semmes), the House sponsor said after nearly five hours of debate Thursday.
House Democrats filibustered the school flex bill arguing on the House floor that the proposal was just a "back door way" to make charter schools legal in Alabama.
"We stopped them last year, by a wide margin, and they just tried it again this year" said Rep. Alvin Holmes.
Republicans argued that there are protections built into the legislation that prohibit particular statutes and policies from being "flexed" under the legislation.
"It never was a backdoor to charter schools" said Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard (R – Auburn). "It specifically says this bill does not in any way open the door for charter schools."
The House did approve a wide-ranging amendment to put some safeguards into the bill to prevent charters from being established, eliminating tenure, decreasing teacher compensation, or to opt out from the Teachers Retirement System and health insurance for teachers under the law.
The school flex bill does provide for some modifications when it comes to programs and compensation offered to new employees. For instance, if a school system had an approved waiver, it could offer prospective teachers more money than the current compensation matrix, or tenure. The prospective teacher would have the opportunity to choose between the two.
Democrats said the amendment was hollow in that it did not provide specific definitions showing what was prohibited under the law. They argued that, without a definition of a charter school, then a school could be run like one without having the formal name.
"We didn't put a definition in the bill because this isn't a charter schools bill," Rep. Fincher said.
Democrats have grave concerns that the flex option could be abused.
"This is going to undo education with a 180 degree turn" said House Minority Leader Craig Ford (D – Etowah).
The Alabama Education Association has been vocal in its opposition to the bill, saying it could allow schools to scrap numerous state statutes.
The AEA is the only major education group against the school flex bill. The Alabama Association of School Board, the Council for Leaders in Alabama Schools and the School Superintendents Association are all in favor of the flexibility legislation.
Alabama's Superintendent of Education, Tommy Bice, is also in favor of the bill.
The Senate will consider the bill starting next week and it could reach Gov. Bentley's desk as early as Thursday.
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