MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) – A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit Tuesday challenging the Alabama Accountability Act and said the students who filed the suit failed to prove the law treats them unequally.
U.S. District Judge Keith Watkins issued a 57-page opinion siding with state officials who were sued.
Eight public school students wanted the judge to block the law, which allows students in failing public schools to transfer to non-failing schools or private schools and their parents to get tax credits to cover the cost. The students, who were represented by the Southern Poverty Law Center, contended they are treated unequally because they have no non-failing public schools or private schools nearby and they don’t have the money or the transportation to get to schools in other counties.
The students attend failing public schools in the Wilcox County, Russell County, Barbour County and Linden city school systems.
The judge said living in rural Alabama requires additional family income for transportation to a school outside a student’s local community, but no wealth-based classification is apparent in the part of the law challenged by the students.
“The requested remedy is arguably mean: Withdraw benefits from those students who can afford to escape non-failing schools. The only remedy requested thus far would leave the plaintiffs in exactly the same situation to which they are currently subject, but with the company of their better-situated classmates. The equal protection requested is, in effect, equally bad treatment,” the judge said.
The primary author of the Alabama Accountability Act, Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said, “Today’s ruling is another win in the effort to give children trapped in failing schools an opportunity to receive a better education. The Accountability Act is already proving to be successful in providing students and parents with more educational options.”
Geron Gadd, an attorney with the Montgomery-based Southern Poverty Law Center, said the students will appeal.
“The act was passed as a supposed remedy to our state’s failing schools. Yet, a year later, 97.5 percent of the students in so-called failing schools are still there. Many of them are trapped by their location and poverty,” Gadd said.
The Legislature passed the Alabama Accountability Act in February 2013, and it took effect with the 2013-2014 school year. It allows parents to move their students from public schools rated as failing to non-failing schools in the same school system, non-failing schools in another school system if that system will accept the students, or private schools that participate in the program. It provides state tax credits to parents to cover private school costs.
It also allows citizens and businesses to get tax credits for donating to scholarship programs for low-income students to attend private schools.
In the first semester, 719 students transferred to another school in the same school system, 18 to another public school system and 52 to private schools.
A separate suit challenging the law is still pending in Montgomery County Circuit Court. That suit was filed by members of the state teachers’ organization, the Alabama Education Association. It is the second suit filed by AEA members. Their first suit was rejected by the Alabama Supreme Court in September 2013.
Another part of Alabama Accountability Act, which has challenged in court, allows city and county school systems to apply for exemptions from state education policies and try new approaches to teaching students.
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