MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WHNT) - A seismic day at the state capitol unfolded Thursday after Republican lawmakers pushed through a bill they say is an education game-changer. But Democratic opponents are crying foul over the fast-evolving process that ultimately led to victory for school choice supporters in Alabama.
Both bodies of the Alabama Legislature passed House Bill 84 on Thursday, which will allow students who attend failing schools to transfer to private, parochial or other public schools through taxpayer-funded vouchers. Gov. Robert Bentley (R) is expected to sign the bill into law on Tuesday.
The bill seemingly stunned Democrats and members of the Alabama Education Association, with some opponents openly venting their frustration on the Senate floor shortly before it was passed by a vote of 22-11. The legislation passed the House 51-26 earlier in the day. The voucher provision was not part of the original bill, and was only added in a conference committee just hours before being finalized.
State Rep. Phil Williams (R-Huntsville) is vice-chair of the House Education Committee, and called the bill's passage a monumental victory for students and parents across the state.
"We have passed tonight a law that is absolutely transformational for Alabama," said Williams, who told WHNT News 19 that he had no idea the provision would be added until the committee met. "Children that are trapped in these failing schools will for the first time ever have options and choices."
Proponents said the legislation also includes wording that would strip tenure from some teachers who work in failing schools.
"Students' choices on where they go to school is now more important in Alabama than protecting the tenure system," said Williams. "There will be people leaving the public school system as a result of this new law."
State Board of Education President Tommy Bice issued a statement expressing his opposition to the bill, which he had previously supported before it was amended to include school vouchers.
"None of the added language to the flex bill has been vetted with us at the State Department of Education," the statement read. "There are significant negative financial implications for all of Alabama's public schools. This is no longer the bill I gave my support to."