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Ken Hare In Depth: Cost of private school tax break act still in doubt

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MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) -

It's been more than a month since the misnamed Alabama Accountability Act was rammed through the Alabama Legislature and three weeks since Gov. Robert Bentley signed it into law, and still no one can say with any certainty what tax breaks for families that send their children to private schools will cost public education in Alabama.

There are estimates, of course, but they range so far and wide that they underscore how little is really known about  the impact of the Accountability Act.

And that in turn underscores how silly it was for the GOP leadership in the Legislature to slap the "accountability" label on something that had no price tag on it when the lawmakers used a legislative bait-and- switch scam to push it to passage.

A spokesman for the Alabama State Department of Education on Friday said that the agency was still working to develop a list of "failing schools" under the new act.

Since that list is crucial to knowing how many families will qualify for the tax credit of $3,500 for students zoned for those schools, any estimate of the drain on the state's education budget is squishy at best.

But because the Legislature is currently working on the education budget for the coming fiscal year, it has been necessary to try to put some number on that lost revenue in order to try to pass a budget that is balanced.

Democrats in the Legislature who opposed the bill and the Alabama Education Association have warned that the act will siphon hundreds of millions of dollars each year from the state education budget. And since that budget covers not just the state's portion of public school funding, but also funding for public two-year and four-year colleges, the impact of the loss will be felt there as well.

A spokesman for the Alabama Association of School Boards said Friday that the act would cost the education budget $42 million if 10 percent of students at failing schools leave. That would go up to $339 million if 80 percent leave.  Those numbers are higher than an earlier estimate by the AASB.

The public should note, however, that it will cost the education budget funds even if not one additional student at a failing school leaves. That's because families whose children are zoned for a failing school who already send those children to a private school would also be eligible for the tax deduction.

Meanwhile,  Rep. Jay Love, R-Montgomery, the chairman of the House education budget committee, told al.com that he believes the act could cost the Education Trust Fund between $50 million and $60 million in 2014.

He said that is the figure he is using to work on the education budget for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

But in reality, no one really knows what this legislation will cost public education because there are so many variables. The law contains several definitions of what is a "failing school," so that will be difficult to determine. And there is no way to tell definitively how many of parents with children attending a public school will pull them out of that school.

In addition, the tax break for children zoned for those schools who attend a private school is not the only tax break in the act. It also allows businesses and individuals to take a tax credit for donating to a scholarship fund for students at failing schools whose parents could not afford to send them to private schools even with a tax break. That section's impact on education funding is iffy as well, although it is capped at $25 million.

(Note that the estimate by the Alabama Association of School Boards of the impact of the act on the education budget does not cover include the tax credit for students who already are in private schools or the tax credit for donations to the scholarship fund.)

Rep. Love's estimate of the impact of the act underscores another interesting angle to this developing story -- most of the drain on the education budget would occur even if no child currently in a failing school leaves.

Love told al.com that he is basing his estimate on the assumption that 25 percent of the state's 61,000 private school students would qualify for the credit -- an assumption that he believes will probably be on the high side. He also is assuming that 10 percent of an estimated 74,000 students at a failing schools would take the tax credit.

If that proves to be in the ballpark of what actually happens, then the bulk of the drain on the public education budget would come from students who are already attending private schools.

But, of course, no one really knows for sure how the effect on public education funding will play out.

It is interesting, however, to see some of the Republican legislators who supported the Accountability Act criticize those who are trying to develop estimates of its impact. It takes a lot of chutzpah to support legislation without a price tag on it and then criticize those who try to figure out after the fact what it will cost.

While the impact of the act on the state's education budget is a crucial issue, there also is an even more important one: What will be the impact of the act on the quality of education that Alabama students receive?  That may prove even harder to predict than the ultimate financial cost of the Accountability Act.

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Ken Hare was a longtime Alabama newspaper editorial writer and editorial page editor who now writes a regular column for WSFA's web site. Email him at khare@wsfa.com.

Copyright 2013 WSFA 12 News.  All rights reserved.

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