- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 31, 2015

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - Alabama senators on Tuesday agreed to both expand and tighten restrictions on a state program that helps some families pay for private school.

The Alabama Senate passed the bill on a 20-14 vote after Republicans cut off debate.

“I’m happy for the parents and the kids in this state that will have the choice that many never had before,” said Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston.

Marsh said the bill improves the program that he said provides valuable education options to families. However, opposed lawmakers said the changes don’t go far enough.

Democrats said the program was sold as helping kids in failing public schools but many scholarship recipients never attended those schools.



Sen. Quinton Ross, D-Montgomery, said the program was about “lining someone’s pocket and not really helping the students that need help the most.”

“We must stop telling lies to the people of the state of Alabama,” Ross said.

The Alabama Accountability Act provides income-tax credits - a dollar-for-dollar reduction on an income-tax bill - in exchange for donations to the scholarship-granting organizations. Children in public schools designated as failing have priority for the scholarships.

The Senate bill expands the cumulative yearly cap on donations from $25 million to $30 million.

Marsh said the scholarship program continues, but one of the scholarship organizations, the Alabama Opportunity Scholarship Fund, didn’t raise as much money as it did the year before because of ongoing litigation over the program.

“Most everyone in the chamber on both sides of the aisle felt you wanted to make sure those kids didn’t get kicked out of the program,” Marsh said.

The bill would also increase reporting requirements and specify that the Department of Revenue can audit the scholarship-granting organizations. The proposal would also tighten income requirements on new scholarship applicants to 185 percent of the federal poverty level. That means a family of four would have to earn $44,123 or less each year to qualify for the scholarship.

Tuesday’s debate reopened lingering divisions over the program. A handful of Republicans joined Democrats in opposing the bill.

The bill now moves to the Alabama House of Representatives.

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