Alabama School Choice Law Faces Legal Challenge

The law gives a $3,500 tax credit to families that transfer their children from failing public schools.

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A first-of-its-kind law in Alabama that awards tax credits to families who transfer students out of failing public schools is facing a legal challenge, as the Southern Poverty Law Center asked a federal court to block the law Monday alleging it will create a disadvantage for low-income students.

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Under the Alabama Accountability Act, which was passed earlier in 2013, a family can receive a tax credit of $3,500 by transferring their children from one of the state's 78 declared failing schools to a private or non-failing public school. But the SPLC lawsuit claims this tax break violates the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection Clause because it creates two classes of students, based on which families can afford private school tuition or the increased cost of transportation to attend another public school out of their original district.

"For many students in the Black Belt, the promise of the Alabama Accountability Act is an empty one," said SPLC President Richard Cohen, in a statement. "The reality is that thousands of children in Alabama's Black Belt, most of them African-Americans below the poverty line, are trapped in failing schools and cannot take advantage of the Act."

Upon signing the law in March, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley said it proved to families "that we're committed to making sure their children have access to a quality education."

"This also gives flexibility to children and parents by providing new options for students who are stuck in persistently low-performing schools," Bentley said. "All children deserve access to a quality education, no matter where they live."

But Jerri Katzerman, SPLC's deputy legal director, says the law does the opposite.

Nearly 40 percent of the schools the state declared as "failing" fall into Alabama's "Black Belt" area, composed of 18 counties that have historically high rates of poverty, crime and unemployment, as well as poor access to education, Katzerman told U.S. News.

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A $3,500 tax credit, which is given to help offset the cost of tuition at private schools, would provide little help to poorer families, as those fees can often reach more than $8,000 per year. Additionally, many of the state's more than 400 private schools are not participating in the transfer program.

On the other hand, families looking to send their children to another public school would have to choose a school in another district, and the added cost of transportation would add up, Katzerman says. For some families, the closest non-failing public school is 19 miles away, which would mean traveling 76 miles each day (19 miles each way, twice a day).

"Alabama has too many failing schools, and we agree with that. We want to see high performing schools for all children," Katzerman says. "But this act does nothing to solve that problem. It allows a few students to escape a failing education, while trapping the majority of students in those failing schools."

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