Once again, a law passed by the Legislature has landed the state in federal court. It is not the legal status of the Alabama Accountability Act, however, that should most disturb voters.
The lawsuit filed Monday by Black Belt families, with the assistance of the Southern Poverty Law Center, argues that the “school choice” law violates the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution by denying low-income Alabamians equal protection of the laws. The Accountability Act provides tax credits and tax-funded scholarships for those who have time, money and transportation, but for the people who actually need a path out of failing schools it provides nothing.
Indeed, what it provides is worse than nothing. Schools in the Black Belt and elsewhere are failing in large part because they lack funding. The Accountability Act leaves the students with no choice, and simultaneously drains funds from their schools.
The Legislature could have given all students in failing schools the ability to transfer. It could, alternatively, have provided the funding needed for failing schools to improve. It did neither.
There will be beneficiaries, of course. Many will enjoy a windfall from tax credits for contributions to a $25 million scholarship fund, drained from the Education Trust Fund. Participating private schools will enjoy tax subsidies. Families with extra money and transportation, who attend failing schools, will be able to transfer. Students zoned for failing schools, who already attend private schools, probably will benefit from a tax-funded subsidy.
The complaint filed Monday gave snapshots of Alabama poverty. The students who are plaintiffs in the lawsuit are desperate to escape the poverty that overwhelms their parents and know education is their only hope.
They cannot take textbooks home to study, because the schools do not have enough of their outdated textbooks for every student. The students are assigned novels to read, but neither their families nor the school can afford to buy them. So class time must be taken as the teacher uses a projector to show the pages of the novel, one page at a time.
Transferring to a private school under the Accountability Act is not an option for those in poverty. In most cases, the private schools refuse to accept Accountability Act transfers. Even those that accept them cost far more than the $3,500 tax credit, which families would not get until long after tuition is due. The private schools also are located far away from the families, generally requiring more than 100 miles of driving each day. Some families have no car. Others have a car that a parent needs for work. The cost of gas would be prohibitive for all the families.
Transferring to a public school is just as impossible. In many Black Belt school systems, all of the schools are failing. Most of the neighboring districts with schools that are not failing have refused to accept Accountability Act transfers. Even if a school does accept such transfers, families are left with the transportation issue.
It would seem impossible to make the plight of these students any more bleak. Somehow, the Legislature managed to do just that. Their one hope of escaping poverty — a good education — is even more distant now than it was before the Legislature got involved.