MONTGOMERY — A bill to require Alabama school systems to adopt open enrollment policies to accept students outside their districts cleared its first vote Tuesday.

Some education groups spoke against Senate Bill 365 by Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, who pledged to work with them as the bill moves forward. Marsh, a school choice advocate, said the state has to provide more educational options for families, and 47 states have open enrollment policies.

“It basically says you’re not limited by your ZIP code where you’re going to school,” Marsh told the Senate Education Policy Committee.

Marsh said exceptions in the bill mean schools don't have to take out-of-district students if they don't want to and his bill won't create any "mass exodus" from systems. Opponents said as written, all systems would be forced to change their policies.

“There is nothing that forces a system to take anybody, but it gives hope to those families to at least approach a system if this piece of legislation is in place," Marsh said.

Marsh’s bill provides that non-resident students would have to pay an amount equal to the per-student local tax revenue within the system. In some systems, that can be thousands of dollars per year. Out-of-system students would also have to provide their own transportation.

Opponents during the hearing were School Superintendents of Alabama Executive Director Ryan Hollingsworth and Shannon Cauley, a Baldwin County Schools board member and president of the Alabama Association of School Boards.

Hollingsworth said that many systems already have open enrollment policies but shouldn’t be forced to adopt them.

He said that as he reads the bill, systems could deny both non-resident and resident students enrollment for a variety of reasons, including a lack of space or teachers within schools.

“I know you didn’t intend to, but you may have solved our teacher shortage problem,” Hollingsworth said.

Marsh’s bill says systems may deny enrollment to resident and non-resident students for specific reasons, including:

• A lack of space or teaching staff at a requested school, in which case priority will be given to resident students.

• The requested school does not offer appropriate programs or is not structured or equipped with the necessary facilities to meet special needs of the student or does not offer a particular program requested.

• The student does not meet the established eligibility criteria for participation in a particular program, including age requirements, course prerequisites and required levels of performance.

• A desegregation plan is in effect for the school district and the denial is necessary in order to enable compliance with the plan.

• The student has been expelled, is in the process of being expelled, or may be legally denied permission to enroll.

The bill says schools do not have to:

• Make alterations in the structure of a requested school or to make alterations to the arrangement or function of rooms within a requested school.

• Establish and offer any particular program in a school if the program is not currently offered in that school.

• Alter or waive any established eligibility criteria for participation in a particular program, including age requirements, course prerequisites and required levels of performance.

• Provide transportation for out-of-system students.

Cauley said Baldwin County doesn’t have open enrollment but prides itself on the services it can offer students in the district.

One of her major concerns with Marsh’s proposal was about special needs students. She said the legislation conflicts with federal law that says students with special needs can’t be denied access.

Opposition

Sen. Chris Elliott, R-Daphne, represents much of Baldwin County. He voted against the bill.

“They’ve got legitimate concerns on the mechanics of the bill and how it’s implemented,” Elliott said after the vote. Meanwhile, he said that if systems can already choose to have open enrollment, “why isn’t that good enough?”

“I fail to see the purpose and I think it’s laying some pretty problematic land mines later down the road, especially as it pertains to special education, which is a very expensive component of public education.”

Marsh said almost all states have some sort of open enrollment and the bill was drafted using some language from their laws. He said he was surprised by some of the concerns voiced.

He also said some groups would oppose the bill no matter what changes he made.

He said the state’s bottom-rung rankings on national assessments shows the need for better education options.

“If we continue to accept the fact that Alabama is ranked 46th and 51st, and don’t do anything about it, industry is going to look at that, our people will be assumed less educated, we’re not going to have opportunities,” Marsh said. “We can’t project that 46 and 51 are good enough.”

He encouraged senators to look beyond the systems they represent.

“We’ve got to decide among ourselves if it’s time to look at the state as a whole,” he said.

Sen. Vivian Figures, D-Mobile, was one of the "no" votes. She said some families can’t afford to pay the equivalent of local taxes to attend better school systems. She said state leaders should be focused on making all schools high performers.

“It can be done,” Figures said. “The resources aren’t being put into place to make it so.

Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, voted for the bill but said he still had questions, including about the potential impact on high school athletics and whether student athletes would have to sit out a year if they transferred schools.

The committee vote was 7-3.

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