CullmanTimes.com - Cullman, Alabama

Top News

March 15, 2013

Ala. Supreme Court clears way for Accountability Bill

Local educators concerned about private school ‘credits’

After a brief legal tussle, the Alabama Supreme Court has stepped in and cleared the way for the controversial Alabama Accountability Act, which will provide tax credits to some parents who send their children to private schools.

The all-Republican court threw out an order from a Democratic judge that had kept Republican Gov. Robert Bentley from signing the bill. The justices ruled that a lawsuit by the state teachers’ organization challenging the legislation was premature because the governor hadn’t signed it.

After a brief review, Bentley signed the bill into law early Thursday afternoon.

“This is an opportunity for children of this state to have something they’ve never had before,” Bentley said.

With the bill formally approved, the Alabama Education Association is expected to file another suit soon.

Local educators will be watching closely, because virtually all leaders in the field are opposed to the measure.

The Republican majority in the Legislature pushed the bill through on Feb. 28 to provide tax credits to parents who choose to enroll their children in a private school rather than a public school rated as failing. Under the legislation, at least 10 percent of Alabama’s 1,499 public schools would rate as failing.

The bill provides a tax credit for individuals and businesses who contribute to scholarships for students whose parents can’t afford private school tuition. It also gives city and county school systems the ability to get permission from the state school board to have flexibility in complying with state education laws, but the tax credits caused the legal fight.

The AEA filed a suit challenging whether the Legislature violated the state’s open meetings law and its own rules when it passed the bill with little debate. Montgomery County Circuit Judge Charles Price, a Democrat, issued a temporary restraining order preventing the governor from signing the bill while the judge considered the litigation.

The Supreme Court ordered the suit and the restraining order thrown out. The justices said the issue is not ripe for the courts to consider until the governor signs the bill into law. In a separate opinion, Chief Justice Roy Moore said the Montgomery judge’s order violated the separation of powers between the legislative and judicial branches of government.

Cullman County Board of Education Superintendent Billy Coleman said many questions remain about the legislation, as well as the long-term it could have on the state.

“I wish a lot of the details had been worked out, maybe with some amendments, but our job is to carry out the law as it affects education and we’re certainly going to do the best we can. From a Cullman County standpoint, it’s probably not going to have an impact as far as our schools, because they’re wonderful schools,” Coleman said. “But from a statewide perspective, you have to consider the vouchers statewide that will come into play and have an impact on funding throughout the state. In that respect the entire public school system could suffer, and that would affect all the schools to a point because you’re taking money away from public schools.”

One school that could be affected locally under the “failing” designation is the county schools’ Child Development Center, which serves several special needs students. Since the school serves many students with learning disabilities, it has historically failed to meet the state and federal guidelines as a “successful” school. Coleman said those potential implications have yet to be determined.

“Our child development center is a school where they haven’t been able to meet those graduation standards, and the way standards are written makes it virtually impossible in that situation,” he said. “We love that program and want to do everything we can to help those kids get the best education possible. That provides a great service and I don’t expect this to change anything.”

Though disappointed with the decision, Cullman City Schools Superintendent Dr. Jan Harris said she and her staff will work diligently to obey the law in any capacity that affects the system.

“I’m very disappointed the governor signed this bill into law, because there are areas that educators have concerns about,” she said. “But, we will work to fulfill the letter of the law. It shouldn’t directly affect us in Cullman City Schools, because we don’t have any failing schools. We’ll do the best we can.”

State Rep. Mac Buttram, R-Cullman, said he was pleased to see the challenge struck down and the bill put into action.

“I’m glad it’s finally in place and it’s time to get started on it,” he said. “It seemed pretty obvious to me the court was overstepping its bounds, intervening in legislative procedures. I’m glad we’re getting some help for children in failing schools, accountability for those schools, and flexibility for our highly successful schools in Cullman County and Cullman City.”

State Sen. Paul Bussman, R-Cullman, echoed those sentiments and said he believes the act will help bring accountability to underperforming schools in the state.

“I think it will be a very good piece of legislation for education and be very positive for Cullman, simply because they can put in innovative programs they couldn’t do before,” he said. “With none of our schools underperforming, there’s not an issue with private schools or tax credits in Cullman. It’s only a positive for Cullman and we’re excited about where we’re at. I think this will be a huge piece of legislation to start fixing some for these failing schools around the state.”

The Republican majority in the Legislature pushed the bill through on Feb. 28 to provide tax credits to parents who choose to enroll their children in a private school rather than a public school rated as failing. Under the legislation, at least 10 percent of Alabama’s 1,499 public schools would rate as failing.

The bill provides a tax credit for individuals and businesses who contribute to scholarships for students whose parents can’t afford private school tuition. It also gives city and county school systems the ability to get permission from the state school board to have flexibility in complying with state education laws, but the tax credits caused the legal fight.

The AEA filed a suit challenging whether the Legislature violated the state’s open meetings law and its own rules when it passed the bill with little debate. Montgomery County Circuit Judge Charles Price, a Democrat, issued a temporary restraining order preventing the governor from signing the bill while the judge considered the litigation.

The Supreme Court ordered the suit and the restraining order thrown out. The justices said the issue is not ripe for the courts to consider until the governor signs the bill into law. In a separate opinion, Chief Justice Roy Moore said the Montgomery judge’s order violated the separation of powers between the legislative and judicial branches of governor.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Trent Moore can be reached by e-mail at trentm@cullmantimes.com, or by telephone at 734-2131, ext. 220.

1
Text Only
Top News