March 3, 2015

Supreme Court of Alabama rejects teachers' union challenge to school choice

By Jonathan Wood Attorney

The Supreme Court of Alabama, in a lengthy and largely unanimous opinion, upheld the state’s school choice reform program. The Alabama Accountability Act created a system of tax credits to aid parents who transfer their kids from failing public schools to better public or private schools. The teachers’ union promptly challenged the law, arguing that the reform initiative is unconstitutional. In addition to some technical procedural arguments, the union’s main substantive objections were (a) the school choice aspects of the program violate the Alabama Constitution’s “single purpose” requirement for legislative enactments; and (b) the state constitution forbids any public funds from being used to support private schools—funds can only be used to support public schools and public school teachers (an argument which would obviously increase the union’s largesse).

The Court rejected the first argument with ease, explaining that the Constitution only requires that all aspects of the bill be germane to its purpose. Here, that purpose was increasing flexibility and choice in the state’s education system to improve outcomes for students. Clearly, school choice tax credits are consistent with that purpose.

The Court also rejected the union’s attempt to constitutionalize its opposition to reform. It recognized that school choice programs do not aid private or religious schools, but instead aid parents and students whom the public schools have failed for far too long. The tax credits are a lifeline to parents whose students have been stuck in what the state acknowledges are “failing schools.” Parents may use them to send their kids to private schools. But if they do, that’s the result of parental choice, not the state’s:

[T]he [statute] as a whole ensures that any aid that may ultimately flow to a religious school … will do so only as a result of the private decisions of individual parents rather than flowing directly from the State.

Consequently, the Court rejected the union’s attempt to render any reform effort that took advantage of competition between public and private schools unconstitutional. So long as parents, not the state, direct the money, the program will not “aid” private schools.

Congratulations to our friends at the Institute for Justice, who represented parents in defending the school choice reform. You can find the amicus brief that PLF filed in the case here.

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