Private school tax break ‘traps’ poor students, lawsuit claims

Southern Poverty Law Center President Richard Cohen discusses a federal lawsuit against the Alabama Accountability Act during a press conference in...
Southern Poverty Law Center President Richard Cohen discusses a federal lawsuit against the Alabama Accountability Act during a press conference in...
Dave Martin/AP

The Southern Poverty Law Center has filed a federal lawsuit in Alabama claiming new legislation that offers tax breaks to families who transfer their children from failing schools to private or non-failing schools discriminates against poor children.

According to the suit, filed in late August on behalf of eight students, the recently passed Alabama Accountability Act is unconstitutional because it essentially creates two classes of students assigned to failing schools, those who can escape them because of their parents’ income or where they live—and those who cannot.

“We are fighting for all children who are in failing schools and don’t have an option to escape them,” Jerri Katzerman, deputy legal director for SPLC, told MSNBC. “These are children who live in the most impoverished areas of our state and one of the poorest regions in the entire country.”

The act was passed by the Alabama Legislature in the spring, pushed through by Republican lawmakers over the objections of Democrats. It gives tax credits of about $3,500 per year per child to families at failing schools that can be used to pay tuition at a private or non-failing school. Under the law, individuals and businesses can get up to $25 million in tax credits annually for donating to nonprofit scholarship programs for students to attend non-failing and private schools.

On Tuesday, the Alabama Department of Education released the first data on the act’s impact. Some 719 students used the act to leave failing schools for higher performing schools in the same districts. Across the state, 52 students left for private schools.

According to the SPLC, the law essentially “traps” thousands of poor and minority students residing in Alabama’s so-called Black Belt region, a stretch of 18 largely poor counties in the southern part of the state.

“Because the Act’s benefits are not equally available to all students and because an education is necessary to prepare students to participate effectively in our democracy,” the complaint reads, “the Plaintiff-students are being denied the equal protection of the law as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.”

According to the complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama, “the schools in which Plaintiffs are trapped are likely to deteriorate further as their funding is continually diminished over time as a result of the act.”

The claim asks the court to enjoin the act from going into effect until an “equal opportunity to attend schools that are not failing” is ensured.

In a number of the counties, there aren’t any schools without failing grades, the SPLC says. The cost of private schools is “prohibitive,” and the non-failing public schools in neighboring counties are not accessible for reasons including distance or financial limitations. Nine out of 10 students in the state’s failing schools are enrolled in free or reduced meal programs, a key poverty indicator.

“We have a serious problem in Alabama with our educational system and it really needs a serious solution,” Katzerman said. “And for our legislators to offer as a solution, that only some children are able to have access to a quality education when the goal should be that all have access to high performing schools is the flaw with this particular statute, with this law.”

Another group, made up of a teacher, a school administrator, and a state senator has also filed suit, claiming the Alabama Accountability Act was not properly approved and that it would illegally divert money meant for public schools to religious institutions.

“The role of public education funding is to educate children, not provide welfare to private schools,” Gregory Graves, associate executive director of the Alabama Education Association, which backs the suit, told Graves said the program was a million-dollar “giveaway” to private schools as public school systems are struggling under great cutbacks.

The SPLC claims that many of the private schools that have opted to take part in the program were religious schools.

Opponents of the law have come under fire from Republican and conservative groups. The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based conservative think tank, lauded the legislation when it passed, calling it “a surprising and historic move.”

The Cato Institute, another conservative Washington group, argued that by trying to undo the new legislation, the SPLC is hurting and not helping needy children in Alabama.

“The SPLC lawsuit claims that the law “creates two classes of students assigned to failing schools—those who can escape because of their parents’ income or where they live and those, like the Plaintiffs here, who cannot. In fact, those two classes of students already exist,” CATO wrote. ”In other words, by expanding opportunities to low-income families, it makes an already unequal education system more equal.”

Del Marsh, a Republican from Anniston and Senate President Pro Tem, said the law is all about choices not discrimination.

“If opponents of Alabama’s school choice law were as diligent about giving students and parents opportunities to receive a quality education as they are about filing lawsuits to stop education reforms, we would all be better off,” Marsh said in a statement. “But perhaps it’s easier to stall and continue kicking the can down the road than it is to work toward real solutions.”

Private school tax break 'traps' poor students, lawsuit claims