June 21, 2013

Finger on the pulse: school choice in Alabama

By Anastasia P. Boden Attorney

In February, the Alabama legislature enacted the Alabama Accountability Act—a school choice measure aimed at giving tax credits to families who, because of their school district, must send their children to “failing schools,” but who wish to enroll in a non-failing private or public school.  Twenty four states have passed school choice laws—South Carolina passed a similar law just this week. The Alabama Act also gives tax credits to individuals and businesses who donate money to a scholarship fund designed to help students attend non-failing schools.

A “failing” school is defined as one that has had average test scores in the lowest 6% of schools for at least three of the past six years.  The definition was widely contested by school officials across the state, who, given the amount of money they stood to lose if students transferred from their school, had an interest in making sure their school was not defined as “failing.”  Some officials even urged parents to “stay the course” in the failing school, rather than transfer out.  The list of “failing schools” was recently published, revealing that 30,000 students were enrolled 78 in such schools.

Immediately following the bill’s enactment, opponents filed a lawsuit challenging the way the bill was passed.  While the lawsuit is being resolved in state court, legislators continue to hammer out the details of what the act means, some seeking to limit the act’s reach, and others seeking to expand it.  Some of the dust has settled, and those opposed to school choice have scored a minor victory. 

It is now understood that students already enrolled in private schools—even if assigned to failing schools—will not receive tax credits to attend a non-failing school.  Those who sought this interpretation argued that students already enrolled in private schools need the tax credits the least.  Of course that argument ignores the many families who are struggling to afford tuition for the private schools.                       

 Another limitation on the act’s scope includes a recent amendment which allows non-failing schools to deny any transfer requests—although they may not deny admission on a discriminatory basis. 

 In response to such developments, the bill’s sponsor, Senator Del Marsh said, “giving even a limited number of parents with children in failing schools more options for a better education is clearly a step in the right direction.”  Despite his optimism, some schools have already indicated they would not accept any transfers, citing local rules prohibiting them from enrolling students from outside their district.                 

Overall, the Alabama Accountability Act is a step in the right direction, giving parents choice over their children’s educational opportunities.  As PLF well knows, the fight for school choice can be an uphill battle.  Recently PLF participated in litigation over a similar measure in New Hampshire, and filed briefs supporting charter schools in Georgia and California.  For more on PLF’s K-12 Reform Project, see here.

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