The Southern Poverty Law Center is suing the state of Alabama to block the Alabama Accountability Act (AAA), an education reform law approved by the Alabama Legislature during the 2013 Regular Session.
"The Accountability Act is a pipe dream," said Richard Cohen, President of the SPLC. The SPLC is filing the lawsuit on behalf of 11 students currently enrolled in failing schools in Wilcox, Russell, Barbour, and Marengo Counties.
"We have received notice of the lawsuit from the Southern Poverty Law Center and our legal staff is reviewing its content for implications for K-12 public education," said Dr. Tommy Bice, State Superintendent of Education. "In the meantime, we will continue to follow existing law until informed by a court to do otherwise."
The Alabama Accountability Act allows students enrolled in failing schools to transfer to non-failing public schools, or to private schools. In the event of a transfer to a private school, the parents may qualify for a tax credit worth up to $3,500 to offset the cost of tuition. Under the law, private schools must participate in the AAA's scholarship program in order for parents to qualify for the tax credits.
The law also allows for school systems to apply for waivers from some state laws and regulations relating to education. The AAA also gives schools the choice to reject all transfers. In other words, no non-failing school is required by law to accept students attempting to leave failing schools.
"We've challenged the Act because its promise that all students will be able to escape failing schools is an empty one" Cohen said.
"The Alabama Accountability Act is working to provide school choice and education options for students across the state, regardless of where they live or what their family's income might be," countered Alabama Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard [R-Auburn]. "The Southern Poverty Law Center is attempting to slam the door on these options for the very students the Accountability Act is intended to help. Misguided, left-wing lawsuits like this provide proof that the Southern Poverty Law Center is nothing more than the ACLU with a southern accent."
One of the plaintiffs, Mariah Russaw, lives in Barbour County and her grandson attends Barbour Junior High School, which is considered failing under the Accountability Act.
"I want my son to be able to get an education," Russaw said. "I would like for (my grandson) to get the best education he can, and he can't get that."
The lawsuit alleges that the AAA created two classes of citizens of Alabama, those that can take advantage of the benefits of the law and those who are shut out. The SPLC argues that in the Black Belt of Alabama, specifically, will be hurt the most by the law because resources will be taken out of the schools, and children will still be trapped in failing schools because better schools either won't accept transfers or the schools are too far away.
"The Black Belt has a disproportionate number of failing schools," Cohen said.
"Challenging Alabama's historic school choice law on the grounds that it limits options makes no sense. This is more of the same from those who would rather maintain the status quo," said President Pro Tem of the Alabama Senate Del Marsh [R- Anniston]. "We will continue working to make sure students and parents in failing schools have options to receive a quality education."
When Republicans passed the AAA, they argued that it provided students and families with choices they never had before when it came to education. Governor Robert Bentley initially refused to sign approved changes to the Accountability Act that modified provisions relating to the private school tax credits and student eligibility for transfers.
The SPLC and the plaintiffs argue that because of the exceptional poverty and geographic locations, many children who live in the Black Belt will never be able to take advantage of the law.
"Our clients are assigned to these failing schools and cannot escape them. They don't have the means, the financial resources to go private schools or to transfer to the few other public schools in distant counties that may take them" Cohen said.
The lawsuit was filed in the United States District for the Middle District of Alabama.