Hallmark: Wait and see on House Bill 84

Marengo County Schools Superintendent Luke Hallmark is taking a wait-and-see approach on House Bill 84, the controversial education legislation that would provide funding for children in failing schools to attend non-failing public or private institutions.

“Until everything is finalized, it’s really hard to say,” Hallmark said of the potential impact of the legislation on Marengo County Schools. “Anytime you have a bill that has been approved by the legislature, the House and the Senate and goes before the governor, there can always be an executive amendment put on one. We’ve heard that there may be an executive amendment put on the bill and we’ve heard that there will definitely not be one put on the bill.”

The gubernatorial signing of House Bill 84 stalled Tuesday due to a court order. Still, many around the state believe judicial involvement is merely a stall tactic and that HB84 will ultimately be signed into law.

The immediate question for Marengo County Schools, as with many other systems, revolves around which schools will be deemed as failing institutions. A list circulated by Senate Republicans contains 202 Alabama public schools that the party believes could be labaled as failing based on their understanding of current state standards.

Listed among those 202 institutions are Marengo County entities Sweet Water, A.L. Johnson, John Essex and Marengo.

“The thing that has to be determined is what are the parts of a failing school. What is the definition of a failing school? It sounds like the legislature has one definition. The state department has a definition. Washington may have a definition. A local community may have a definition,” Hallmark said. “It has not been clearly defined what is a failing school.”

While that definition has not been entirely solidified, the language of HB84 does appear to provide some parameters for what would be considered a failing school.

Under the legislation, a failing school would be defined as one that either ranked in the bottom 10 percent of statewide reading and math assessment scores, scored three consecutive D’s or one F on a new Florida-style school report card system in the process of being implemented, was labeled as “persistently low-performing” on the state’s School Improvement Grant application or was declared as failed by the state superintendent of education.

The legislation calls for a tax credit of $3,553 per child for each family residing in the district of a failed school. The funds, which come out to 80 percent of the average cost of educating a child in Alabama, would be issued should parents move their children from failing public institutions to non-failing public schools or private schools.

In Marengo County, where all public schools outside of Demopolis are named on the Republicans’ prospective list of failing institutions, the most immediate private school options are Linden-based Marengo Academy and Demopolis-based West Alabama Christian.

Marengo Academy’s current tuition rate is $4,200 per year, a breakdown of $350 per month. That number does not include minimal fees such as registration or the one-time membership fee charged to each family.

At West Alabama Christian, tuition is a flat rate of $3,000 per year in addition to fees that vary based upon grade level. WAC is currently constituted as a K4-7 institution that is adding grade levels each year.

House Bill 84 also consists of a scholarship program that would allow for the creation of additional funds to help offset the cost of private education not covered by the initial tax credit.

All of these funds would ultimately come out of the Education Trust Fund, a fact that has many concerned over the suddenly-tenuous longevity of the ETF.

As Hallmark explains, however, the bill – if signed into law – could hurt the trust fund both coming and going.

“If the bill is passed and there are tax breaks, the tax breaks will affect all public schools in Alabama. Income tax is a very, very important entity in the Education Trust Fund,” Hallmark said. “If a person or company gets a tax break by sending their kids to a non-public school, then that would be money that would (have been) going into the Education Trust Fund.”