The contentious Alabama Accountability Act (AAA) hit a bump in the road after Montgomery Circuit Judge Gene Reese ruled it unconstitutional May 28, but state lawmakers are confident that decision will be overturned on appeal.
The passage of the AAA was ruled unconstitutional for what Reese and plaintiffs from Alabama Education Association (AEA) and multiple school districts claim are procedural violations.
During its origins as a bill, the AAA was called the Local Control School Flexibility Act of 2013 and was intended to give local school boards more flexibility when dealing with education regulations.
However, Senate Republicans drastically changed the bill the day of the vote to include a $3,500 tax credit for families transferring a child from failing school system.
It also earmarked up to $25 million annually from the Education Trust Fund (ETF) to be used for tax credits to corporations donating scholarships aimed at helping students transfer from those failing schools.
Reese’s ruling validated all of the allegations made in the plaintiff’s original suit, which was filed in August of last year.
“The constitution requires that ‘each law contain but one subject, which shall be clearly expressed in its title,’” Reese’s ruling read, quoting Article IV section 45 of Alabama’s constitution. “The tax credit programs have no relation to the flexibility contract provisions, and theses sections do not interact with each other.”
The ruling states the law also violates sections 61, 71 and 63 of Article IV, which all deal with legislative procedures.
The original complaint alleged the AAA also violates Alabama’s separation of church and state provisions because it channels state funding to private schools, which are typically religious institutions.
Because he upheld several other claims of unconstitutionality, Reese declared the “religion clauses” a moot point.
Lawyers for Alabama Revenue Commissioner Julie Magee and State Comptroller Thomas White, who were named as defendants in the complaint, filed a motion for a stay during the appeals process on May 29.
The motion claimed Reese’s ruling would cause “irreparable injury” if a stay isn’t granted, and asserted the state has a “strong likelihood of success” during the appeals process.
“Absent a stay, the injunction will upend the ability of these families to plan for the 2014-15 school year, and may well leave them with no choice but to return their children to their previous, failing schools,” the motion read.
The state was referring to the 789 students who have transferred from failing schools since the law went into effect last March.
Of those, 719 students transferred a school in the same district, 18 transferred to another public district and 52 transferred to private institutions.
According to the law, a failing school is defined as one having scored in the bottom 6 percent on state reading and math tests three or more times during the last six years.
That formula produced a list 72 failing schools, six of which were in Mobile County.
As of last August, 155 MCPSS students had transferred to other schools within the district and nine had left the system to attend private schools — second in the number of total transfers behind Montgomery County Schools.
“We implemented and followed the (accountability) act exactly as it was written, and it had a very small impact on our schools,” she said. “I think parents who are involved in the schools know that each of our schools designated for students to transfer out of were and continue to be very focused on learning.”
Peek said she doesn’t yet know what effect the court’s final decision will have on MCPSS, but administrators will be watching the case closely.
Reese did say his ruling would only be enforced prospectively and would not affect the tax credits earned in 2013 and 2014.
It’s also unclear how an un-appealed ruling would affect the Alabama Opportunity Scholarship Fund (AOSF) — the AAA’s scholarship program chaired by former Gov. Bob Riley.
The AOSF was modeled after the Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP), which helps fund low-income students participating in Florida’s School Choice option.
That program has been successful, but in 2006 Florida’s Supreme Court issued a ruling declaring the private school option of the OSP unconstitutional.