- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 4, 2015

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - A Senate committee on Wednesday approved a GOP-championed charter school bill, but not before striking language that some feared would allow “virtual schools” to be established in the state.

The vote advances the legislation that Republicans in both the House and Senate have named a top priority for the 2015 legislative session. The bill by Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, could get a Senate floor vote as soon as next week.

The bill allows up to 10 “startup” charter schools in the state each year and unlimited conversions of existing schools to charter status.

Charter schools are public schools that have freedom from some of the curriculum and regulation requirements placed on other public schools. Alabama is one of eight states that do not allow public charter schools, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Proponents said during a Wednesday public hearing that the schools would provide education choices to parents and foster innovation. Former Alabama School Superintendent Joe Morton, who now works for an education group affiliated with the Business Council of Alabama, said Alabama, in crafting the legislation, has learned from the mistakes in other states regarding oversight of the schools.

“There is an advantage sometimes to being last,” Morton said.

Opponents of the bill said the state needs to better fund existing schools and expressed concern about the possibility of for-profit companies running the schools.

“It takes money away when we do not adequately fund public education in the state of Alabama,” said Sen. Vivian Davis Figures, D-Mobile.

Other developments Wednesday at the Alabama Legislature:

GAY MARRIAGE

The House Judiciary Committee discussed, but did not vote, on the “Freedom of Religion in Marriage Protection Act.” The bill would provide civil immunity to ministers, churches and society organizations that refuse to officiate at, or provide accommodations for, same-sex weddings. The bill is part of the House GOP agenda. Proponents said the bill would protect people from being forced to participate in ceremonies that violate their religious beliefs. Opponents call the bill discriminatory. The committee meets again Thursday.

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ELECTRIC CHAIR

The House Judiciary Committee discussed, but did not vote, on a bill that would bring back the electric chair if Alabama was unable to obtain the needed drugs for lethal injection. The state has not carried out an execution since 2013. The committee meets again Thursday.

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PRISON REFORM

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, said it will be two weeks before the Senate Judiciary Committee votes on a bill aimed at reducing overcrowding in Alabama prisons. The bill, expected to be one of the meatier issues before lawmakers this year, calls for sweeping changes in sentencing, probation and parole.

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