Lawsuit challenges Alabama private school tax credits

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) – Low-income students who attend failing public schools are being hurt by a new Alabama law that gives tax credits to families that transfer their children to private schools, the Southern Poverty Law Center claimed Monday in a federal lawsuit.

Law Center President Richard Cohen said the new Alabama Accountability Act will take millions away from public schools and will make the failing schools worse than they are now. He said the law was promoted by Republican Gov. Robert Bentley as a way for students to get out of failing schools.

“It’s a lie. Our clients do not have a way out of the failing schools that they are in,” he said.

Bentley said the new law is designed to help students in all public schools. He said one portion of it gives schools flexibility in complying with state education laws so they can customize their schools to meet the needs of their students. “All students can benefit from the flexibility portion of the Accountability Act, and it’s important that we preserve and build on this progress,” he said in a written statement.

The author of the tax credit portion of the law, Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, called the suit “more of the same from those who would rather maintain the status quo.”

The Montgomery-based law center sued on the opening day of classes for most public schools in Alabama. The suit focuses on a part of the law that allows families with children in Alabama’s 78 failing public schools to move them to a non-failing public school or to a private school that participates in the program. They can get a state tax credit of about $3,500 annually to help cover private school costs.

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Montgomery on behalf of eight plaintiffs who say they can’t afford to go to private schools and that the non-failing public schools are not accessible. The lawsuit raises equal protection issues.

One of the eight plaintiffs, Mariah Russaw, said she couldn’t afford the transportation costs even if her 12-year-old grandson, J.R., could leave Barbour County Junior High School in Clayton. All junior high schools in the Barbour County school system are on the failing list. The nearest non-failing public school is 19 miles away in Pike County. The nearest private school is about 30 miles away, but it is not participating in the program.

The 62-year-old grandmother said it wouldn’t matter if the private school were participating. “I cannot afford to transport him to another school,” she said.

Russaw has Bell’s Palsy and no steady source of income. She is the guardian for her grandson because his mother has multiple sclerosis.

A supporter of the law, House Speaker Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, said it creates options for students regardless of where they live. “Misguided, left-wing lawsuits like this provide proof that the Southern Poverty Law Center is nothing more than the ACLU with a Southern accent,” he said.

As of Monday, 56 private schools were accepting students through the Alabama Accountability Act.

Most of the students at the 78 failing public schools are poor enough to receive free or reduced-priced lunches, and nearly 40 percent of the schools are in low-income counties stretched across central Alabama in a region known as the “Black Belt,” the law center said.

The law center sued the state in 2011 over its new immigration law and succeeded in blocking parts of the law.

The Alabama Accountability Act also faces a challenge by the Alabama Education Association. AEA’s lawsuit has not been heard yet. AEA Executive Secretary Henry Mabry said Monday the law center’s suit doesn’t surprise him, and he expects more.

The Legislature set aside $40 million of education tax revenue to cover the cost of the tax credits during the first year of the law. Mabry said public schools can’t afford that kind of loss at a time when parents are sending toilet paper and paper towels on opening day because schools can’t afford supplies.

“It’s the most backward, nonsensical legislation we’ve seen in a long time,” he said. Mabry said AEA will try to get the law repealed in the next legislative session starting in January.

(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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