The Alabama state legislature pushed through major school choice reforms on Thursday evening despite opposition from state Democrats and teachers’ unions.
The reforms followed legislative success in neighboring Tennessee where a school choice bill recently advanced out of committee fully intact.
Those two victories signal continued momentum for the nation’s school choice movement and could help lead to additional pro-choice legislation around the country, reform advocates said.
"Alabama has needed real educational change for a long time," said Cameron Smith, general counsel and legislative liaison for the Alabama Policy Institute, a state-level think tank.
"This legislation shows that Alabama’s new leadership is serious about reform, not content to simply be a different face on the same educational bureaucracy," Smith said.
Republicans in the Alabama legislature stunned both advocates and opponents of reform on Thursday when they inserted provisions into an education bill that would give tax credits to families of children attending "failing" public schools, allowing those children to attend private schools or another public school in the state at the last minute.
"I truly believe this is historic education reform and it will benefit students and families across Alabama regardless of their income and regardless of where they live," Alabama Republican Gov. Robert Bentley said.
Opponents of education reform criticized the measure and said it was passed through legislative chicanery.
"You went behind closed doors. … This is not democracy. This is hypocrisy," one state Senate Democrat screamed on the chamber floor as the Senate’s Republican supermajority passed the legislation.
Proponents insist the reforms will improve education in the state.
"Research shows that, beyond a shadow of a doubt, school choice improves academic outcomes for children," said Lindsey Burke, an education policy expert at the Heritage Foundation.
Burke said the Alabama legislation "is helping to continue the school choice march that is underway across the country."
That march could accelerate in the wake of reformers’ victory in Alabama, Smith said.
"If Alabama, with one of the most powerful education bureaucracies in America, is able to pass this type of educational reform law, school choice reforms across the nation and the children that benefit from them have a bright future," said Smith.
Meanwhile, the Tennessee House of Representatives on Tuesday advanced a school choice bill out of committee without amendment despite expectations opposing legislators would be able to modify it during the committee stage.
The Tennessee bill would allow students at failing public schools to use tax dollars to attend private school instead.
School choice advocates in the Tennessee legislature have signaled that they will try to expand the bill, which in its current form would only apply to about 3.5 percent of the state’s public school students.
Tennessee state Senator Brian Kelsey (R), who chairs the Education Committee and authored the school choice legislation, said he would propose an amendment on the Senate floor expanding the program.
School choice advocates said they hoped to expand the initiative.
"As we talk with parents, lawmakers, and other Tennesseans, we consistently hear that they want to see this proposal expanded to include more low- and middle-income families," said Justin Owen, president of the Beacon Center of Tennessee.
"We support school choice opportunities that empower all parents, regardless of their means or where they live, to choose the school that is right for their children," Owen said.