The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

May 28, 2014

Judge overturns Alabama Accountability Act

Associated Press

— MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — A Montgomery judge on Wednesday struck down Alabama's tax credits for parents who move their children from failing public schools to private schools.

Circuit Judge Gene Reese ruled the Alabama Accountability Act violates the Alabama Constitution in several ways, including putting more than one subject in a bill. Proponents said they will appeal the ruling by the Democratic judge before the all-Republican Alabama Supreme Court.

The Republican-controlled Legislature passed the act in February 2013. It started out as a bill to give city and county school systems more flexibility in trying new approaches to education.

Over Democratic objections, the Republican majority expanded the bill to include state income tax credits for parents who move their children from public schools rated as failing to other non-failing public schools or private schools in the transfer program. The expansion also provided 100 percent income tax credits for companies and individuals for money donated for scholarships to private schools for families below certain income levels.

Proponents said the law offered school choice to students trapped in public schools with a long history of poor performance. Members of the state teachers' organization, the Alabama Education Association, challenged the law in court. The group contends such tax credits divert state tax money from public education to promote private schools.

Reese said the Legislature violated the Constitution by putting more than one subject in the law and by changing the legislation from its original purpose of flexibility, which had virtually no cost, to tax credits, estimated to cost $40 million annually. He also said the law violates the constitutional prohibition about providing public funds for private education. The judge wrote that the Legislature can't avoid the prohibition "by instead reimbursing parents the cost of their tuition payment at such institutions."

AEA attorney Bobby Segall said the judge saw that the law promotes private schools at the expense of public schools. He called the law a throwback to the 1950s, when Alabama sought to avoid integration by directing public school funds toward private schools. "It is totally shameful," he said.

An attorney representing some families using the law, Bert Gall of the Institute for Justice, said, "Alabama parents should be able to choose the best education possible for their children, whether that's in a public or private school."

The chief designer of the law, Republican Sen. Del Marsh of Anniston, said, "This ruling to block school choice in Alabama is unfortunate largely because the law has already been successful in giving children more options to receive a quality education. I firmly believe this law will stand upon appeal."

Reese's ruling differed with one in April by U.S. District Judge Keith Watkins, who dismissed a separate suit filed by eight public school students represented by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

When the law went into effect, 719 students transferred from failing public schools to another school in the same school system, 18 to another public school system and 52 to private schools.

Reese said his ruling will not affect the tax credits earned for the 2013-2014 school year.