After a lower state court ruled the Alabama Accountability Act (AAA) unconstitutional, the Alabama Supreme Court last week announced its decision to uphold the embattled law.
In its early stages the law was originally called the Local Control School Flexibility Act and intended to allow school boards more flexibility dealing with education regulations. However, on the day of the vote, Senate Republicans changed the bill to include a $3,500 tax credit for families transferring a child from a failing school — defined by law as being “persistently low-performing by the State Department of Education” or having scored in the bottom 6 percent on standardized state reading and math assessments three or more times during the last six years.
Last May, Montgomery Circuit Judge Gene Reese ruled the AAA unconstitutional, agreeing with plaintiffs who alleged there were procedural violations. On March 2, the Alabama Supreme Court rejected the lower court’s ruling, including provisions concerning legislative procedure and prohibitions against appropriations of money to non-state charitable, educational or religious institutions, according to a March 3 news release from the office of Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange.
“In their Monday ruling, the Alabama Supreme Court rejected multiple claims from the plaintiffs that the Alabama Accountability Act is unconstitutional,” Strange said. “The Supreme Court’s ruling makes it crystal clear that Alabama parents have the right to school choice in seeking the best education for their children.”
In the 222-page ruling, the Supreme Court also affirmed the Legislature did not make any violations in changing the bill from its original purpose. However, the Alabama Education Association (AEA) retracted its support when there were noticeable changes to the law. The AEA and other opponents maintain the bill was rushed through the Legislature without proper debate and passed in a matter of hours, with authors ultimately adding the private school voucher at the end.
The law has 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 failing schools. The AEA believes an inherent problem exists because public school tax money comes out of the ETF budget each year and earmarking funds for tax credits can reduce the amount of money for public schools.
AEA President Anita Gibson, Lowndes County School Superintendent Daniel Boyd and State Sen. Quinton Ross (D-Montgomery) ultimately filed the lawsuit challenging the law.
Those opposed to the AAA maintain the scholarship portion of the bill is being abused while those in favor of the law believe it is simply attempting to fund tuition for students of non-failing schools to attend private schools on scholarships. According to the law, unused funds may be given to any student after scholarships are distributed to those students in failing schools.
“More than half the scholarship credits have not gone to kids in failing schools. They’ve gone to kids who have never set foot in a failing school,” Jesse McDaniel, UniServ director of the Mobile area AEA, told Lagniappe last month after the Alabama State Department of Education named more than 50 schools across the state as failing schools.
However, students enrolled at Mobile’s Pure Heart of Mary Catholic School (HOM), which has been rumored to be closing its doors for the last 20 years, have seen direct benefits from the AAA, according to principal Jamie Crain.
While a decline in enrollment was only one of the reasons for the archbishop to recommend closing the school, Crain said it was also lacking community members to provide support. Further, she said the school has grown tenfold in community support over the last two years due to support from HOM parish, surrounding parishes, local businesses, private benefactors and many others interested in the survival of the school, including the AAA.
“AAA made it possible for families to choose a private school education for their children,” she told Lagniappe via email. “Many of our students have always wanted to be at HOM, but were financially unable to attend.”
According to Crain, HOM has approximately 50 more students over last year, but not all of the new students are recipients of AAA scholarship funds. Still, she said she has personally witnessed HOM students who have greatly benefited from the AAA.
“One of my students from a failing school told me that HOM saved his life, and he’s so happy he was able to get the scholarship so he could have a better life away from the trouble he was getting into at his old school,” she said. “Another student broke down crying saying he felt like he didn’t know anything in math class here. When I asked why, he told me they didn’t have a math teacher as his old school and they watched movies instead. AAA is giving so many kids a chance for a better education and a better life filled with opportunity.”
As a downside to the AAA, Crain said she isn’t sure there is an accurate accounting of all the failing schools because she has seen several students entering middle school for the first time as a sixth grader, who have a second or third grade reading and math level.
“Those kids never stepped foot into the ‘failing middle school,’ yet they’re still very behind, so I think it’s a blessing for those students as well,” she said.
In Mobile County, Augusta Evans School, Jeremiah A. Denton Middle School, Booker T. Washington Middle School, Mae Eanes Middle School, Mobile County Training Middle School and CL Scarborough Middle School were all named as failing schools.
All institutions listed as failing schools were required by the AAA to notify parents of their transfer options by Feb. 13, and the deadline for parents to return a student transfer form to their local school system for the 2015-2016 school year is May 1.