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Second Lawsuit Targets Alabama School Choice Law

The Alabama Accountability Act, a law passed this year that provides tax-credit scholarships for students at struggling schools to attend private or better-performing schools, is facing its second legal challenge, with a state senator, school superintendent, and teacher claiming the law was approved in an improper way, and that it will illegally divert public funds to private religious schools.

Kim Chandler has the news story out of Alabama, where the suit was filed by state Sen. Quinton Ross, a Democrat, Lowndes County school Superintendent Daniel Boyd, and teacher Anita Gibson, who also happens to be president of the Alabama Education Association, a state teachers' union. (Alabama's revenue commissioner and comptroller, respectively, are named as defendants given their roles in administering the scholarships.) As you can see from the lawsuit, filed in the Circuit Court for Montgomery County on Aug. 26, one major claim in the lawsuit is that the original bill "substantively altered in conference committee so as to change its original purpose" without following the legislature's proper process for considering and voting on legislation.

This is a complaint I touched on in my story back in March, in which Democrats in the legislature railed about the fact that the original legislation, which allowed districts to apply for flexibility from certain state laws, was altered so that the school-choice program was tacked on by Republican lawmakers without proper consideration and transparency.

In addition, the legal complaint touches on a common theme for opponents of such school-choice programs in states: Ross, Boyd, and Gibson argue that the state's constitution prohibits public funds from being directed to religious institutions in the way that they say the Accountability Act does. Such provisions on money for sectarian organizations in state constitutions are commonly known as "Blaine Amendments." According to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which opposes Blaine Amendments, 38 state constitutions contain such restrictions on public funds. (The Becket Fund claims that the amendments are actually rooted in anti-Catholicism.)

But GOP Senate President Del Marsh shot back in response to the lawsuit that they plaintiffs believe it is "easier to stall and continue kicking the can down the road than it is to work toward real solutions."

Under the Alabama Accountability Act, any student assigned to a school graded D or F on the state's accountability system is 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.

On Aug. 19, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed its own lawsuit against the Accountability Act on behalf of several students. The advocacy group claimed that the scholarship program actually discriminates against poor children because, in practice, it will not allow students in many high-poverty, struggling schools to find new educational options.

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