The Alabama Opportunity Scholarship Fund, headed by Governor Bob Riley, has awarded almost 1,500 scholarships to help low-income students attend private schools instead of failing public schools.
Riley recently referred to the program as a “success story on steroids.”
Of the 1,474 students who received the scholarships, 90% were minorities, and the average household income was $20,687.
In order to be eligible for the Alabama Opportunity Scholarship Fund, students must qualify for the free or reduced price lunch program. Total family income cannot exceed 150% of the state average, which, according to the Census Bureau, is $43,000.
Scholarship money can be used to pay tuition and other fees associated with private schools or for transportation costs associated with attending a non-failing public school, offering a choice to low-income parents who previously did not have the option.
“I want that mother and father to have an option to make a choice for what they think is best for the kid,” Riley said in an interview.
The number of private schools participating in the program has doubled this year from 59 last August to 162. In order to participate, the schools need to meet certain requirements, which according to executive director of the Alabama Christian Education Association Robin Mears, “are not intrusive and don’t go much beyond what his member schools already had to do.”
The AOSF said that about 1,400 more scholarships will be awarded this year to students who do not attend failing schools. According to scholarship rules, all those awarded prior to September 15 must attend failing schools.
Still more who completed the registration for the scholarship, reaching about 2,200 children, will be placed on a waiting list until more funds become available.
The organization received 11,936 applications from 61 countries. Some students stated they did not finish the application process after they heard that the funds had run out.
An audit was released by the AOSF showing that none of the board members have received any money, nor did Riley. That included immediate family members and participating businesses. “I’m not making a dime out of it,” Riley said.
The organization raised $17.8 million last year. Those who donate to the fund receive a 100% tax credit of up to $25 million each year. That money would have gone to the Education Trust Fund in support of public schools.
The AOSF was created under the Alabama Accountability Act, which was ruled unconstitutional in May by Montgomery County Circuit Judge Gene Reese after the Alabama Education Association argued that it was in violation of the Open Meeting Act. Reese ruled that the act violated the constitution by placing more than one subject in the law and having changed from its original purpose of school flexibility, which came with almost no cost, to tax credits.
Since that time, state officials have appealed to the Alabama Supreme Court, and the act remains in effect as the appeal is pending.
The organization is the largest scholarship fund in operation under the Alabama Accountability Act, which was enacted in 2013.