BY PHILLIP RAWLS
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — More students are moving from public to private schools with the help of scholarships provided by groups that were able to raise the maximum amount of money allowed by Alabama law.
The leader of one of the most successful scholarship groups said the number of students taking advantage of the Alabama Accountability Act has swelled in the second semester because of more donations. Birmingham lawyer Jenny McCain, president of Scholarships for Kids, cited 16 students who recently enrolled at Churchill Academy in Montgomery using scholarships from her group.
She said the students' parents had wanted to transfer them from public schools — some rated as failing and some not — but they didn't have the money for the private school that helps students with special needs. "The only reason they are able to be at the school is the Alabama Accountability Act," she said in an interview.
The Legislature passed the Alabama Accountability Act in February 2013, and it kicked in with the fall semester. It allows students in the 78 public schools rated as failing by the state Department of Education to move to any non-failing school or to a participating private school. It provides parents with a $3,500 annual tax credit to help cover their costs.
The law also allows the creation of scholarship organizations to award scholarships to children to attend private school. Until Sept. 15 of each year, the scholarships are targeted for children leaving failing public schools. After that, money can go to parents making less than 150 percent of the median household income, no matter where their children have been enrolled. That figure is about $62,000.
The law gave businesses and individuals a 100 percent tax credit for donations to the scholarship organizations, and it capped the tax credits at $25 million per year. The state Revenue Department reports business and individuals committed the $25 million limit for 2013.
Scholarships for Kids reported raising $6.3 million in 2013. McCain said donations picked up after school started and more people learned about the law. She predicts her organization will have 700 to 1,000 students on scholarships by May. She said about 80 percent of them would likely qualify under the low-income provision.
An attorney for the Alabama Education Association, which is challenging the law in court, said it's deceptive to describe the money raised as contributions because the donors get every dollar back through the tax credits. "There is no philanthropy," Bobby Segall said.
For the fall semester, the state Department of Education reported 52 students left failing public schools to attend private schools under the Alabama Accountability Act. Figures aren't available for the spring semester, but supporters of the law expect a dramatic growth for the 2014-2015 school year.
"I have schools calling me every week," McCain said.
But first, the law has to get past legal challenges.
A federal judge heard arguments Tuesday in a lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and a state court judge heard arguments Thursday in a lawsuit filed by AEA, the state teachers' organization.
Montgomery Circuit Judge Gene Reese gave attorneys two weeks to submit proposed orders and said he will rule afterward.
AEA's attorneys said the state Constitution allows only one subject in a bill, while the Accountability Act has two subjects. They said one subject gives public schools flexibility in complying with state regulations, and the other provides tax credits to parents moving children from failing public schools to private schools.
An assistant state attorney general, Will Parker, argued the bill has only one subject.
"All the provisions in the act relate to education," he said.