Alabama Accountability Act Offers Choice, Growing More Popular

With the help of scholarships provided by groups able to raise the maximum amount of money allowed by Alabama law, more students are moving from public to private schools.

Because of more donations, the number of students taking advantage of the Alabama Accountability Act has swelled in the second semester, according to the leader of one of the most successful scholarship groups. 16 students who recently enrolled at Churchill Academy in Montgomery using scholarships from her group were cited as representative examples by Birmingham lawyer Jenny McCain, president of Scholarships for Kids. The students' parents wanted to transfer them from public schools — some rated as failing and some not — but they didn't have the money for the private school that helps students with special needs.

"The only reason they are able to be at the school is the Alabama Accountability Act," she said in an interview.

Kicking in with the fall semester, the Alabama Accountability Act was passed by the Legislature in February, 2013. Students in the 78 public schools rated as failing by the state Department of Education are allowed by the Alabama Accountability Act to move to any non-failing school or to a participating private school.

To help cover their costs, it provides parents with a $3,500 annual tax credit. The creation of scholarship organizations to award scholarships to children to attend private school is also allowed by the law. The scholarships are targeted for children leaving failing public schools until September 15th of each year. After that, no matter where their children have been enrolled, money can go to parents making less than 150% of the median household income — about $62,000.

A 100% tax credit for donations to the scholarship organizations was given to businesses and individuals by the law, while it capped the tax credits at $25 million per year. Business and individuals committed the $25 million limit for 2013 as reported by the state Revenue Department.

$6.3 million was raised in 2013, reported Scholarships for Kids. Donations picked up after school started and when more people learned about the law, according to McCain. By May, she predicts her organization will have 700 to 1,000 students on scholarships, and about 80% of them would likely qualify under the low-income provision.

However, the law has to get past legal challenges. As reported by The Associated Press, in a lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a federal judge heard arguments in a lawsuit filed by Alabama Education Association, the state teachers' union, charging that while the Accountability Act has two subjects, the state Constitution allows only one subject in a bill. One subject gives public schools flexibility in complying with state regulations and the other provides tax credits to parents moving children from failing public schools to private schools, according to the union.

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