published Thursday, June 20th, 2013

Few transfers expected under Alabama tax credits

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — The leaders of two Alabama private school organizations don’t expect many new students to apply in the wake of a law providing tax credits for students transferring from failing public schools.

One reason is the list of failing schools is shorter than many originally anticipated. Another reason is middle schools make up much of the list of failing schools, but there are far fewer high schools that the middle schools feed into. Officials question whether parents will move their children from a failing middle school to a private school if the tax credit won’t be available for high school.

J. Robin Mears, executive director of the Alabama Christian Education Association, said the Alabama Accountability Act is a monumental piece of legislation, but it is more restrictive on student transfers than he had wanted. He said only about 15 of his 70 member schools are within a 35-minute drive of a failing school and that distance will limit transfers.

“I don’t think it will ever get close to a hundred,” he said.

Randy Skipper, executive director of the Alabama Independent School Association, said none of his 55 member schools have indicated that they have had students seeking to transfer under the new law.

“I don’t see it having much impact on the independent schools at this point,” he said Wednesday.

The governor signed the Alabama Accountability Act in March to provide tax credits to parents who move their children from a failing school to a private school or non-failing public school. The credits are worth about $3,500 per year, but they end when student moves up to a grade that doesn’t correspond to a failing public school.

In April, the Legislature amended the law to tighten up the definition of a failing school. Legislators also specified that no private school had to accept a transfer.

On Tuesday, the state school superintendent released a list of 78 failing schools. Under the original law, the list was expected to be 150 to more than 200.

Mears said he had expected hundreds of transfers under the original law.

Skipper said the preponderance of middle schools on the list without their accompanying high schools will impact use of the law.

For instance, Montgomery County has six middle schools on the failing list but no high schools. Sumter County in west Alabama had three middle schools and no high schools.

Also on Tuesday, the state Department of Revenue issued its interpretation of the law, including saying the tax credits don’t apply to students who are already in private schools even if they are zoned for a failing school.

Henry Mabry, executive director of the Alabama Education Association, said that was the best interpretation that the teachers’ organization could have hoped for after failing to block the law in the Legislature. He said he anticipates litigation from people who want a broader interpretation.

Mears said he worked with legislators who drafted the law and they intended it to apply to students already in private school. But he acknowledged the law was not as precise as he would have liked it, and it was open to interpretation.

The bottom line, Mears said, is the law will help some students now enrolled in failing schools, but it is not a full-scale school choice law like some states have passed.

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