By PHILLIP RAWLS
MONTGOMERY, Ala. —
The Alabama Supreme Court cleared the way Wednesday for the governor to sign a bill providing 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.
Alabama Education Association attorney Bobby Segall said the court made it clear that any legal challenge should be filed after the governor signs the bill. “We intend to do that,” he said.
The Republican majority in the Legislature pushed through a bill 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 Legislature can’t officially deliver the bill to the governor for his signature until lawmakers go back into session Thursday morning. Bentley told reporters last week that he plans to sign the bill. His press secretary, Jennifer Ardis, said Wednesday that that’s subject to his legal staff reviewing the legislation, as is done with all bills. No signing ceremony has been scheduled yet.
Two of the legislative officials sued by AEA praised the Supreme Court’s order.
“The Alabama Supreme Court’s decision today is a loss for activist judges and status quo union bosses, but a major win for parents and children trapped in failing schools across the state,” Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston said.
“While the enemies of education reform will continue to file baseless actions and fight the changes that our public education system desperately needs, today’s unanimous decision is a great victory for students, parents and educators alike,” House Speaker Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, said.
House Minority Leader Craig Ford, D-Gadsden, said that if Democrats regain control of the Legislature in next year’s elections, their first goal will be to repeal the tax credit legislation.
The ruling was one of two defeats Wednesday for the AEA. In a party-line vote, the state Senate Education Committee approved a bill to remove the AEA’s executive secretary from the board that oversees the state pension program for educators. That bill still must pass the Senate and House and be signed by the governor before becoming law.