The Southern Poverty Law Center has filed a lawsuit challenging the state’s new controversial school choice law. The lawsuit, filed August 19th, contends the private school transfers allowed by the act are inaccessible to Alabama’s poor families and will take away millions of dollars from the public schools they do attend. Richard Cohen, president of SPLC, says poor parents can’t afford private school tuition even with the help of the new tax credit. He says further that even if they could, the parents often don’t have a participating private school near them. The lawsuit, filed in Montgomery federal court, seeks to permanently block the implementation of the Alabama Accountability Act approved by the Alabama Legislature in the last session. Richard called the promise by sponsors of the Legislation that the law would help all students regardless of location and income an “empty promise.” He had this to say:
The reality is just the opposite. Children in Alabama’s Black Belt, most of them African-Americans, are still trapped in failing schools, still being given the short end of the stick.
The lawsuit makes an equal protection claim, contending that the Accountability Act creates two classes of students. These claims, which certainly appear to have merit, are:
• Those that can transfer because of their parents’ wealth, and
• Those who cannot transfer.
The lawsuit alleges that “the schools in which plaintiffs are trapped are likely to deteriorate further as their funding is continually diminished over time as a result of the Act.” The Alabama Accountability Act will give tax credits — estimated at $3,500 per year per child — that families at “failing” schools can use to offset the cost of tuition at a private school or a non-failing public school. The law also authorizes up to $25 million in tax credits for donations to scholarship programs designed to help lower income students bridge the gap between the $3,500 tax credit and private school tuition. In the lawsuit, the SPLC represents eight students in Black Belt counties that are assigned to failing schools.
Even if parents could afford the private school tuition through a scholarship, many parents won’t find a participating private school near them to attend. It should be noted that only a very few private schools are participating. Reportedly, there are 56 private schools that are accepting transfers under the new law. As I understand it, the state has named 78 public schools as failing under the Accountability Act because of recent test scores.
It will be interesting to see how this lawsuit fares in the federal court system. When this legislation was passed I did not believe that it was good for our state and nothing has happened since then that changes my belief. Instead of abandoning a “failing” public school, those in positions of power in state government should be working to correct the problems that allow that school to fail. The definition of “failing” doesn’t appear to be workable based on what school officials have been saying. I believe the governor and legislative leadership need to take a look at what this Act, unless it’s changed, will do to hurt public education in Alabama. I believe repeal is the best solution. While private schools have a definite place in our state, a strong public education system is absolutely essential. That shouldn’t even be subject to debate. The sad truth is we have never made public education the top priority for government planning and spending in Alabama and that must change. This Act, the subject of the SPLC lawsuit, is definitely not the answer. In fact, if it remains the law, things will only get worse for public education in Alabama.
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