- Associated Press - Thursday, February 23, 2017

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - Alabama senators on Thursday narrowly approved expanding tax breaks to entice more donations to a state program that provides scholarships for students to private K-12 schools.

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, who sponsored the original legislation, said the revisions are needed to make sure the more than 3,000 children currently using the program don’t lose their scholarships. The Legislative Fiscal Office says donations dropped from $25.8 million in 2015 to $19 million last year.

“The important thing to me is that these kids in the program have a chance to stay there,” Marsh said.

The Alabama Accountability Act is a GOP-sponsored school choice program that gives state income tax credits for donations to scholarship granting organizations. The bill approved Thursday does not expand the $30 million program. However, it expands the amount of credits that individual and corporate donors can claim each year to try to make sure it reaches the annual $30 million donation cap.

The Alabama Senate advanced the changes on a 17-15 vote, sending the bill to the House of Representatives. The brief debate rehashed longstanding controversies, with proponents saying the scholarships provide a lifeline to needy families zoned for underperforming schools, and critics saying relatively few public school students see any benefit.

To qualify for a scholarship, first-time recipients must be in households earning at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level, which equals an annual household income of about $44,123 for a family of four.

Priority for the scholarships goes to students in public schools that have been designated as failing because of low scores, but others can apply - including students already enrolled in private schools.

“The lion’s share of these are students who are already in private schools,” complained Montgomery Sen. Quinton Ross, a Democrat and former public high school principal.

Despite the priority, the scholarships open up to student living anywhere in Alabama if there’s money left after a certain point in the year. In practice, most of that money has gone to students who wouldn’t otherwise have to attend a failing public school.

Alabama Opportunity Scholarship Fund, one of the largest organizations granting the scholarships, awarded 2,005 this fall, but only 849 of the recipients were zoned to attend a school designated as failing, according to its quarterly report to the Alabama Department of Revenue. Scholarships for Kids, the other large organization, reporting giving 1,778 scholarships this fall; Only 358 of its recipients were zoned for a school designated as failing.

The bill would also stop referring to schools at the bottom of test-score rankings as “failing schools,” a term that has drawn the ire of educators and school officials working in high-poverty areas. They would instead be called underperforming schools.

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