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Governor Robert Bentley signed into law Thursday one of the most expansive education reform measures in recent memory.
"We made history today," Gov. Bentley told reporters minutes after he signed the bill. "Now schools have no more excuses to be failing schools."
The Republican controlled Alabama legislature passed the so-called, "Alabama Accountability Act" two weeks ago amid screaming and yelling in the Alabama Senate from both Republicans and Democrats.
Under the law school systems can petition to the State Board of Education for waivers from some state education regulations.
Gov. Bentley said of the flexibility section of the bill, "The true essence of this bill is the flexibility element. Schools can now do things they've never done before."
Over the past two weeks, Gov. Bentley said the bill had "problems" like any piece of legislation, but when asked to elaborate he refused.
The governor also attempted to avoid talking about the far more controversial element to the law, tax credits for families that move their children out of failing schools and into non-failing public or private schools. They can use that tax credit to offset the cost of tuition at a private school of their choice.
"This is just a voucher program" said Rep. Craig Ford, D – Etowah. "The people don't like this. We polled this. They don't want vouchers."
Gov. Bentley staunchly denied that claim, saying if you send your child to a private you still have to pay the entire sum for tuition, but you have the ability to deduct the tax credit later.
Those taxes are one of the major sources of revenue for the Education Trust Fund, the budget that funds all public schools and colleges in Alabama.
"They have no idea how much this is even going to cost. It could take hundreds of millions out of the Education Trust Fund" Ford said.
Corporations are also eligible under the law to earn tax breaks for donating to scholarship funds to get children out of failing schools and into better ones.
The governor and legislative leaders said any holes in the legislation that have to do with how it's enacted would be taken care of by the Department of Education and the Alabama Department of Revenue. Gov. Bentley said he's confident that each department has the necessary legal authority to set regulations for House Bill 84.
There was a controversy earlier in the week surrounding whether the correct bill went to the Alabama House to be transmitted to the governor.
Rep. Paul DeMarco, a Republican from Homewood, confirmed that he did not agree with the entire bill as it passed on February 28 and was under the impression that there were explicit protections in the bill for schools to have the ability to refuse to admit students that came from failing schools.
DeMarco has already filed a bill asking to clear up that language. "I just want to protect local control" he said.
The bill had been blocked from going to the governor for his signature for the past nine days after a Montgomery Circuit Judge ruled that the bill that came out of the conference committee two weeks ago was a substantially different bill, rendering it unconstitutional.
In a unanimous decision Wednesday, the Republican dominated Alabama Supreme Court threw out the case and the restraining order, paving the path for the bill to reach the governor's desk. The court ruled that the judiciary cannot interfere with the legislative process.
After the legal wrangling, Gov. Bentley said it was all worth it.
"All children deserve access to a quality education no matter they live and this provides a new option" Bentley said.
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