GOP senators name charter schools, shrinking government, prison reform as session priorities

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MONTGOMERY, Alabama — Senate Republicans on Monday named charter schools, prison reform and state agency consolidation among their priorities for the upcoming legislative session.

Lawmakers return to Montgomery on Tuesday to begin the 2015 legislative session, and Senate Republicans are putting the charter-school bill on the legislative fast track. The Senate Education Committee is expected to vote on the bill Wednesday following a public hearing.

"It's another of layer of choice for parents and children," said the bill's sponsor, Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston.

Alabama is one of eight states without charter schools. The proposal would authorize 10 new "startup" schools in the state each year and allow local school systems to convert an unlimited number of schools to charter status each year.

Gov. Robert Bentley's administration has raised concerns about two aspects of Marsh's bill: language that would allow for "virtual" schools that are completely online and a provision allowing nonprofits that open charter schools to contract out operations to for-profit companies.

Bentley feels that more study needs to be done on virtual schools "to understand the benefit and how they are held accountable for educating students," Bentley Communications Director Jennifer Ardis said.

Marsh said he's willing to have discussions about the language. However, he said schools need the ability to have online classes, particularly in rural areas where it might be difficult to find teachers in certain science or foreign-language fields.

"Everybody realizes there's got to be a virtual component. The question is how broad it is," Marsh said.

The bill is also expected to draw opposition from Democrats, but Republicans hold 26 of 35 Senate seats.

Legislators convene at noon and Bentley will give his State of the State address at 6:30 p.m. The governor is expected to lay out his case for a $541 million tax increase as a solution to an anticipated shortfall in the state General Fund.

Marsh said senators will look at Bentley's tax proposal, but will also propose some alternate ideas.

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, said a state-prison-reform task force will vote Tuesday on a bill aimed at relieving crowding through "smarter" sentencing, and parole and probation changes.

"We are the most overcrowded system in the U.S. today," Ward said. He said the goal is to get prison crowding down to a level the courts will find acceptable while avoiding a mass release of inmates.

Marsh said he also is proposing a bill to consolidate the Alabama Department of Tourism and the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs under the Department of Commerce.

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