New Alabama School Law Called Racist

     MONTGOMERY, Ala. (CN) – Alabama’s deceptively named “Accountability Act” will trap economically disadvantaged students in the state’s “Black Belt” in failing schools, parents claim in a federal lawsuit against the state.
     The Southern Poverty Law Center filed the lawsuit on behalf of eight public school students and their parents.
     “This is a civil rights action on behalf of economically disadvantaged students who reside in Alabama’s Black Belt and are trapped in failing schools,” the lawsuit begins. “It seeks to enjoin the implementation of the Alabama Accountability Act of 2013 (‘AAA’ or ‘Act’) on the grounds that it violates the plaintiffs’ rights under the Constitution of the United States.
     “The Alabama Accountability Act is designed to ‘benefit students and families across Alabama regardless of their income and regardless of where they live.’ (Statement of Alabama Governor Robert Bentley.) In commending the Alabama Legislature for passing the Act, Governor Bentley stated that ‘I’m so proud we have done this for the children of this state who are in failing school systems and have no way out. Now, they have a way out.’
     “In reality, the Act creates two classes of students assigned to failing schools – those who can escape them because of their patents’ income or where they live and those, like the plaintiffs here, who cannot. The schools in which plaintiffs are trapped are likely to deteriorate farther as their funding is continually diminished over time as a result of the Act. All public schools, whether labeled failing or not, will suffer a reduction in resources, making it more difficult for them to continue to perform at the same level.
     “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 plaintiff-students are being denied the equal protection of the law as guaranteed by the 14th Amendment. Accordingly, the plaintiff-students ask the Court to enjoin the implementation of the Alabama Accountability Act until the defendants ensure that the plaintiff-students, like other students in the state, have an equal opportunity to attend schools that are not failing.” (Parentheses in complaint).
     Bentley signed the Act into law on March 14. Among other provisions, it defines “failing schools” and allows parents of children assigned to such schools to transfer them to “non-failing” public and private schools.
     “The AAA purports to enable the parents and legal guardians of children assigned to designated ‘failing schools’ to transfer their children to nonfailing public and nonpublic schools (i.e., private schools), by providing a refundable state income tax credit to defray the costs associated with that transfer,” the complaint states. “In many instances, the student need never have actually attended the failing school.
     “The AAA defines ‘failing schools’ as follows: 1) schools labeled as persistently low-performing by the ALSDE [Alabama State Department of Education] in its most recent federal School Improvement Grant application; 2) schools scoring in the lowest 6 percent of K-12 schools as measured by their performance on the Alabama Reading and Math Test (‘ARMT’) in three or more of the last six years; or 3) those schools designated as ‘failing’ by the State Superintendent of Education. … The Act operates such that 6 percent of Alabama schools will always be labeled ‘failing’ regardless of their actual performance.” (Citations omitted).
     The Act provides a $3,500 tax credit that may be used for tuition and fees at public and private schools that participate in the AAA’s scholarship program, according to the complaint.
     But the parents say they must bear the costs of transporting children to the receiving schools, which are often out of their district and far from their homes.
     Schools may refuse to admit transfers, and are likely to be selective for fear of becoming “failing schools,” according to the complaint.
     Alabama this year designated 78 public schools as “failing schools.” Almost 40 percent of them are in the 10 counties in Alabama’s Black Belt, which are among the poorest in the state, according to the complaint.
     The plaintiffs claim that around 4,000 students assigned to failing schools have few or no options to transfer to a nearby non-failing school, and will never be able to take advantage of the law.
     They seek an injunction and a declaration that the law is unconstitutional.
     They are represented by J. Richard Cohen with the Southern Poverty Law Center.
     Named as defendants are Gov. Robert Bentley, Alabama State Superintendent of Education Thomas Bice, Commissioner of Revenue Julie Magee and Alabama Comptroller Thomas White Jr.
     Bice issued this statement: “We have received notice of the lawsuit from the Southern Poverty Law Center and our legal staff is reviewing its content for implications for K-12 public education. In the meantime, we will continue to follow existing law until informed by a court to do otherwise.”
     This is the second lawsuit this week alleging unconstitutional, racist policies in Alabama schools.
     On Monday, parents accused the City of Troy school board of re-segregating its schools under the guise of “parent choice.”

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