School Choice Program in Alabama Challenged in Federal Lawsuit
Alabama generated major headlines in the education policy community by passing, in rapid and controversial fashion, a new tax-credit scholarship program earlier this year that targets students at low-performing schools. But the Southern Poverty Law Center has filed a federal legal challenge to the Alabama Accountability Act, claiming that the school choice program "discriminates against poor children" and that, in fact, students from low-income backgrounds who are ostensibly supposed to be helped by the law can't actually take advantage of it.
The school choice program, which GOP Gov. Robert Bentley signed after some bitter recriminations in the legislature, any student assigned to a school graded D or F on the state's accountability system would be eligible for up to 80 percent of the state's per-pupil spending, about $3,550, to be put toward either tuition for a private school or any costs of attending a nonfailing public school. Bentley and Republican lawmakers, who tacked the proposal onto a bill that originally provided some flexibility for schools from state regulations under certain circumstances, said it provides an escape hatch for children trapped in bad schools. But some Democrats, as well as the Alabama Education Association, a state teachers' union affiliated with the National Education Association, charge that the program actually sucks crucial financial lifeblood out of public schools that need the state's help.
What does the SPLC say? In its official complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama, the group names Bentley and state Superintendent Tommy Bice as defendants and says the act violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The SPLC focuses on a particular region in Alabama known as the Black Belt, an economically-depressed area running across the middle of the state that one state news organization calls the state's "Third World." The reality of schools in that region, the SPLC argues, means that the program won't provide any real help. (The plaintiffs in the case include eight school-age children in that region identified by their initials.)
"In a number of Black Belt counties, there are no schools at certain grade levels that are not failing. Because the cost of private schools is prohibitive and because the few public schools in adjacent counties that will take these students are not accessible, many students in the Black Belt cannot escape failing schools," the center stated on Aug. 19.
The SPLC, which is based in Montgomery, Ala., also said the Accountability Act wouldn't just be useless to the Black Belt—it would harm already struggling schools in the region by taking state money out of their budgets and directing it elsewhere, echoing arguments from the AEA and state Democrats. In effect, the group says, the Alabama law creates two classes of public-school children assigned to low-performing schools..
The AEA has refused to let the matter drop. AEA Executive Director Henry Mabry hammered away at the tax-credit scholarship program yesterday, saying that it would deprive public schools of $40 million of revenue for the 2013-14 school year, an allegation that Sen. Trip Pittman, a Republican in charge of the state Senate's K-12 budget committee, said was false.