Equity & Diversity

Alabama Vouchers Target of Federal Court Suit

By Andrew Ujifusa — August 27, 2013 1 min read

Alabama’s controversial new tax-credit-scholarship program is under legal challenge. A civil rights advocacy group has filed a federal lawsuit alleging that the program, approved earlier this year, shortchanges students at low-performing schools.

In its Aug. 19 suit in federal district court in Montgomery, Ala., the Southern Poverty Law Center argues that the school choice program “discriminates against poor children.” The plaintiffs in the case include eight school-age children.

Under the program, any student assigned to a school graded D or F on the state accountability system is eligible for up to 80 percent of the state’s per-pupil spending, about $3,550, to be put toward tuition for a private school or any costs of attending a nonfailing public school.

Gov. Robert Bentley, a Republican, signed the plan into law after some bitter recriminations in the legislature.

But the Montgomery-based SPLC says the act violates the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The SPLC focuses on a particular region in Alabama known as the Black Belt.

“In a number of Black Belt counties, there are no schools at certain grade levels that are not failing,” the center said in a statement issued regarding the lawsuit. “Because the cost of private schools is prohibitive and because the few public schools in adjacent counties that will take these students are not accessible, many students in the Black Belt cannot escape failing schools.”

The suit names Gov. Bentley and state schools Superintendent Tommy Bice as defendants.

In an Aug. 19 statement, Gov. Bentley did not comment directly on the lawsuit, but said provisions of the law, which allow schools to apply for exemptions from certain state laws, would create new opportunities for schools and students to succeed.

There have been recent legal challenges to school choice programs in other states. In March, the Indiana Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of that state’s voucher program. The Colorado Court of Appeals ruled in February that a voucher program in the state, in Douglas County, was constitutional, but the case could ultimately be considered by the state supreme court.

A version of this article appeared in the August 28, 2013 edition of Education Week as Ala. Vouchers Under Legal Fire

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