School choice is finally coming to Alabama now that Governor Robert Bentley has been given the all-clear by the State Supreme Court to sign into law the bill that will issue vouchers to families who can then apply them towards tuition at a private school of their choice. The measure, named the Alabama Accountability Act, was delivered for Bentley's signature yesterday.
The lawsuit challenging the law was dismissed by the court earlier this week as "premature," saying that the dispute was not ripe for adjudication. With that ruling, the court overturned an injunction issued by a judge in Montgomery County after Alabama Education Association sued, saying that the means used by Republicans to drive the bill through violated the Open Meeting law.
Initially, the Alabama Accountability Act was meant to introduce some flexibility into the operation of traditional public school, but after a secret conference committee meeting between the two houses of Legislature, a substantially different measure emerged at the last minute. Instead of a small gesture towards school choice, the AAA became a full-blown voucher program.
After the high court issued its ruling, "Democratic legislators expressed disappointment while Republican leaders praised the action," reports WBHM's Andrew Yeager from Birmingham. "A teachers association lawyer says the court indicated the suit should be filed after the governor signs the bill, and that's what the group intends to do."
The seemingly underhanded tactics didn't just distress Democratic lawmakers. Some Republicans have expressed frustration with the party leadership, saying that the last minute changes meant that they weren't sure of the contents of the legislation before casting their votes. Kyle Whitmire, a political reporter for the Birmingham News, says that it's possible that the secret revision was aimed as much at some reluctant Republican lawmakers as their Democratic peers.
A main difference between the bills, Whitmire says, is a portion that allows schools to choose which students they will accept, which Rep. Paul DeMarco, a Republican, says he thought was included in the final version. It is not.
"This is very important to very successful school systems," Whitmire says, "especially systems around Birmingham, that don't necessarily want to see a flood of students pouring over their borders and into their school system."
The Alabama Department of Education has also expressed reservations, saying that the measure used outdated and unclear language to identify failing schools.
Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard said that the bill will likely undergo revisions, but that Bentley was willing to sign this version and defer the changes until the bill becomes law.