MONTGOMERY, Ala. - Gov. Robert Bentley quickly signed legislation today providing Alabama's first tax credits for private school attendance after he was given permission by the Alabama Supreme Court.
The Alabama Supreme Court decided Wednesday to throw out a lower court order that kept the Legislature from sending the bill to the governor for signing. The Legislature delivered the bill today and Bentley signed it.
"This is an opportunity for children of this state to have something they've never had before," Bentley said.
The bill started out as legislation to allow city and county school systems to get approval from the state school board to have flexibility in complying with state education laws. Its goal was to encourage innovative approaches to education.
On Feb. 28, a legislative conference committee controlled by the Republican majority tripled the bill in size and added state tax credits for parents who chose to send their children to a private school rather than a public school rated as failing. Parents can also send their children to a non-failing public school rather than a failing school. For parents who can't afford private school tuition, the bill sets up a scholarship program, with people and businesses getting tax credits for contributing.
"Our goal is not to support private education. Our goal is to make every school in this state a non-failing school," Bentley said.
Bentley acknowledged the bill had some problems, including language that always ranks 10 percent of Alabama's schools as failing, but he said they can be worked out through state regulations or fixed later by the Legislature.
The Alliance for School Choice said Alabama joins 16 states that have vouchers or tax credits for private school attendance. Across the nation, 148,300 students participated in some type of tax credit program and 97,252 in voucher programs in 2012-13. Vouchers are given to parents upfront, while tax credits come after parents have paid private school tuition.
The Alabama Education Association sued to keep the governor from signing the law, saying the Legislature violated the open meetings law and its own operating rules when passing the legislation. A Democratic judge in Montgomery barred the governor from getting the bill while the suit was considered, but the all-Republican Supreme Court lifted the order and dismissed the suit. The justices said the suit was premature because the bill hadn't been signed by the governor.
AEA attorneys Bobby Segall and James Anderson said a new suit will raise constitutional issues, including whether the dramatic change in the bill's content at the last minute violated the state constitution. Anderson said the law might also be challenged in federal court on grounds that the transfers within the public school system could violate federal school desegregation orders that still cover about one-third of Alabama's school systems.
Critics of the law complained that the tax credits could go to parents who have always sent their children to private school if the children are zoned for a failing public school. The legislation's sponsor, Republican Rep. Chad Fincher of Semmes, said his child attends private school, but he would never benefit from the law because no public school that his child would attend from K-12 is rated as failing.
Fincher said he and his wife chose the school that they thought would provide the best education for their child. "I wanted to give that opportunity to parents whose children are struck in failing schools," he said.
State Superintendent of Education Tommy Bice supported the flexibility part of the law, but opposed the tax credits. He said Thursday some Alabama schools "are woefully underperforming," and his staff will develop rules to implement the new law.