— MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — With the start of the year just three weeks away for most districts, only seven private schools have signed up for Alabama's new program of tax credits to help students transfer from failing public schools.
The tax credits are available for the first time in the 2013-14 school year to parents who move their children from one of Alabama's 78 failing public schools to a private school that signs up for the program.
The credits are part of the Alabama Accountability Act, which Gov. Robert Bentley signed into law in March. Bentley said he's not surprised by the low participation because the law represents a new relationship between state government and private schools.
"They are private for a reason. They are religious for a reason, and they don't necessarily want the state involved in what they do every day," he said.
J. Robin Mears, executive director of the Alabama Christian Education Association, said a major reason for the low participation so far is that the state's rules for implementing the law aren't final even though most schools start back around Aug. 19.
"It's the lateness of it," Mears said.
State Revenue Commissioner Julie Magee said her department has had few calls from private schools about its proposed regulations for implementing the tax credits, but she's not sure why. The department is holding a public hearing on its proposed regulations Aug. 8 in Montgomery. After that, the department could make revisions or Magee could sign off on the rules. Then they go to a legislative committee for possible review. The process could be finished in as little as two months or more than four months.
Mears said he expects more schools will sign up before classes resume in August, but he predicts the full effect of the new law won't be known until the 2014-15 school year, when private schools will have had plenty of time to review the rules and the state's interpretation of them.
The primary author of the tax credits, Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said he's not surprised at the number because the list of failing schools and the proposed regulations were issued close to the start of the school year. He predicted the numbers will grow significantly for the 2014-15 year as more parents and schools understand the law and some false information fades away.
"There's been a lot of misinformation that schools would lose their private status if they signed up," he said.
Craig Pouncey, chief of staff for the Alabama Department of Education, said participation is lower than he expected, and he cited several reasons: Many well-known private schools don't have room to add a lot of students, and some are in areas with no failing public schools.
Pouncey also said that when parents already have had a transfer choice, they haven't rushed to switch schools: 92,000 Alabama students attended low-income Title 1 schools where school choice was available during the 2012-13 school year, but only 1,800 students used it. "Kids don't want to leave their home school," he said.
Montgomery County has eight failing public schools, but only one private school there has signed up — Resurrection Catholic School, which serves pre-K through eighth grade on a well-landscaped campus on the city's blue-collar north side.
Sister Gail Trippett, the principal, and the Rev. Manuel Williams, director of Resurrection Catholic Ministries, said they're surprised more aren't participating because they have been flooded with calls from interested parents since their school became the second in the state to sign up.
So far, more than 70 students who want to transfer from failing schools have taken Resurrection's entrance test. Trippett and Williams said they expect to enroll one-third to one-half of students. Admitting more might change the character of the 130-student school, they said.
The school prides itself on small classes that combine academic and religious instruction with lots of parental involvement. The school insists that parents or grandparents of new students attend weekly meetings.
Trippett said the Alabama Accountability Act opens up options for low-income parents who want their children to succeed but lack the resources to move them. She said she expects the parents of the new students to be like those of her current students.
"The common denominator of the parents is they will do anything for their children to succeed," she said.
In addition to Resurrection, the Revenue Department lists the participating schools as: Country Day School in Madison, the Capitol School in Tuscaloosa, Chambers Academy in Lafayette, Holy Spirit Catholic School in Tuscaloosa, Ellwood Christian Academy in Selma and Trinity Christian Academy in Oxford.
The Alabama Accountability Act provides a state tax credit of about $3,500 a year for parents who move their child from a failing public school to a non-failing public school or a private school. For those who can't afford tuition even with a tax credit, the new law allows individuals and groups that donate to organizations that provide scholarships to receive tax credits. So far, two such organizations have been approved by the state Revenue Department, and a third is awaiting approval.
For families to get state tax credits, their child's private school must agree to accept scholarship students. It must also give the scholarship students state achievement tests or nationally recognized tests to measure learning in math and language. Results must be provided to the state.
Williams said his school has no problem with that. He said none of his students pay the full cost of their educations, and the school raises money to help pay the bills. Those donors want to see academic results, too, he said.
Mears, whose organization represents 70 schools, agreed and said the Alabama Christian Education Association has no problem providing test results.