The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

February 3, 2014

Judge to rule soon on private-school tax credits


Associated Press

— MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — A federal judge said Monday he will rule soon on whether to throw out a lawsuit challenging Alabama's new tax credits for families that move their children from failing public schools to private schools.

U.S. District Judge Keith Watkins heard about an hour of arguments Monday on a request from state officials to dismiss the lawsuit filed by the Montgomery-based Southern Poverty Law Center on behalf of eight low-income children living in four counties in central and south Alabama.

Southern Poverty Law Center attorney Jerri Katzerman said some rural students don't have the income or transportation to move to non-failing schools because they live too far away or the schools won't accept new students. "The statute operates to deny them access to a non-failing education," she said.

Assistant Attorney General Will Parker told the judge that the state officials sued by the law center aren't denying anyone the right to transfer. "The act is an even-handed measure with respect to children in failing schools," he said.

The judge said he will rule "pretty quickly" on whether to dismiss the suit or let it proceed to trial.

The state teachers' organization, the Alabama Education Association, has filed a separate suit in state court challenging the law. A Montgomery judge will hear arguments Thursday on a request by state officials to dismiss that suit.

The private-school tax credits are part of the Alabama Accountability Act passed by the Legislature last February. The law allows parents with children in public schools rated as failing by the state Department of Education to move them to a non-failing public school in the same district or another district. They can also move them to a private school that is participating in the program. The parents can qualify for a tax credit of about $3,500 annually to help pay the costs of the move.

In the fall, 78 public schools were rated as failing. Alabama had 719 students transfer to non-failing public schools within their school system, 18 move to public schools in other school systems, and 52 move to private schools.

Katzerman told the judge that city and county school systems can refuse to accept any students from a nearby school system with failing schools. She argued the law provides an incentive for them to do that because they don't want to accept students who might pull down a school's academic achievement and then get it on the failing schools list.

The judge said he has questions about that part of the law, as well as a part of the law that always classifies 6 percent of public schools as failing. He said Alabama could still have failing schools even if every school in Alabama performed above the national average.

The judge also questioned whether the courts should get involved. "Isn't this a policy decision the Legislature is entitled to make? I'm not a superintendent," he said.

He told Katzerman that if he should block the law, he might not be helping her clients get a better education. "That leaves your students exactly where they are now," he said.