- Cullman, Alabama

March 5, 2013

STATE: Judge temporarily halts private school tax credits

Associated Press

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — A Montgomery judge temporarily blocked the governor from signing a private school tax credit bill and set a hearing for Tuesday afternoon.

Circuit Judge Charles Price issued the order Tuesday morning after the Alabama Education Association, a teachers' group, sued a day earlier.

The teachers' group's suit argues the Legislature violated Alabama's open meetings law and its own operating rules when it passed the legislation with a quick series of votes Thursday night. AEA maintains the tax credits would hurt funding for public schools because Alabama's income tax supports public education.

A supporter of the bill, Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said, "It's unfortunate that anyone would try to stop a bill that gives students in failing schools more options to receive a quality education."

The bill started out as a way to provide more flexibility to city and county school boards in complying with state education laws. After the House and Senate passed different versions, a Republican-dominated conference committee rewrote the bill and tripled it in size. The changes added tax credits for parents who decide to send their children to private schools rather than failing public schools. It also set up a scholarship program for parents who can't afford private school tuition, with businesses and individuals getting tax credits for contributing toward the scholarships.

The Alliance for School Choice said Alabama would become the 12th state with a tax credit program.

"I truly believe it is the most significant piece of legislation that's been passed in this Legislature in years," Gov. Robert Bentley said last week.

AEA's suit maintains the Republican majority on the conference committee violated the open meetings law by writing the new version in private without any public notice, and without including the two Democratic members of the committee.

The suit also argues the Legislature didn't follow its own rules when Republicans in the House and Senate approved the changes on party-line votes Thursday night. The suit said the House and Senate each did it with one vote when two votes were necessary — one to approve the changes made by the conference committee and a second to approve the overall bill.

Alabama's superintendent of education and other major school groups supported the legislation when it was only a flexibility bill. They withdrew their support after tax credits were added. They maintain the bill has several problems, including being so broad that a family zoned for a failing school could get the private school tax credits without even sending a child to a public school.