AEA sues over Accountability Act

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Those opposed to the controversial Alabama Accountability Act are making another attempt to have the law derailed and ruled unconstitutional.

AEAlogoAttorneys for the Alabama Education Association have filed a state lawsuit on behalf of Democratic state Sen. Quinton Ross of Montgomery, Lowndes County Superintendent Daniel Boyd, and Anita Gibson, a public school teacher who is president of the AEA. They argue how Republican lawmakers passed the act was unconstitutional and that the law redirects public funds to private schools that could be religious. Lawmakers passed the accountability act, which allows for parents of children in failing schools to receive tax credits to attend a non-failing public school or a private school, during the last legislative session.

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston (center) speaks with Sen. Jerry Fielding, R-Sylcacauga (left) and Sen. Gerald Allen, R-Tuscaloosa, on the final day of the 2013 Regular Session on May 20, 2013.  (Montgomery Advertiser, Lloyd Gallman)

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston (center) speaks with Sen. Jerry Fielding, R-Sylcacauga (left) and Sen. Gerald Allen, R-Tuscaloosa, on the final day of the 2013 Regular Session on May 20, 2013. (Montgomery Advertiser, Lloyd Gallman)

“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,” Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, the architect of the accountability act, 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.”

The lawsuit is the second filed this month challenging the accountability act. The Southern Poverty Law Center filed a federal lawsuit seeking to stop implementation, saying the act does not extend its benefits equally to all students in schools designated as failing because some students still could not afford to transfer to a private school.

James Anderson, an attorney for the AEA, said a previous lawsuit filed soon after the bill became law alleging that lawmakers violated state open meeting laws is still pending before the Alabama Supreme Court.

The AEA also filed an early lawsuit trying to stop the bill before Gov. Robert Bentley signed it, but the Supreme Court refused at the time to intervene in how lawmakers passed the legislation.

And, much like its initial attempt, the AEA’s current effort could eventually rest before the all-Republican Supreme Court.

State Sen. Quinton Ross, D-Montgomery (Amanda Sowards/ Montgomery Advertiser)

State Sen. Quinton Ross, D-Montgomery (Amanda Sowards/ Montgomery Advertiser)

Ross, former principal at Booker T. Washington Magnet High School, said the act was “ill-advised” and passed by an “irresponsible supermajority that rushed to pass a piece of legislation that wasn’t vetted through the process properly.” He said the Senate also violated its own rules.

“It was passed with such a rush that there are a lot of legal questions and hopefully the courts can answer them,” Ross said.

The AEA lawsuit argues the act is “constitutionally deficient” because it was altered dramatically in a conference committee to change the intent; that the proposal was not read on three different days in the House of Representatives and the Senate; contains more than one subject; would allow funds to go to institutions not under control of the state but was not approved by two-thirds of the members in each legislative chamber; creates new state debt by obligating funds without creating new revenue; and “effectively redirects income tax revenue that is required to be used for the payment of public school teacher salaries only.”

The plaintiffs also contend that it is unconstitutional for the act to redirect state tax revenues intended for public schools to private schools that are sectarian or denominational. They argue the state Constitution “protects citizens from paying any taxes for ‘building or repairing any place of worship, or for maintaining any minister or ministry.’”

They seek to have the law ruled unconstitutional and stop the state from implementing it, although the law went into effect for this school year.

“Ultimately, you want to make sure it is proper use of taxpayer dollars,” Ross said.

The House and Senate passed the proposal in February with language allowing for flexibility at public schools to allow school districts to apply for exemptions from some state regulations. The original bill, the lawsuit points out, did not contain any tax credits or provisions regarding private schools.

But, after the House and Senate passed different versions, Republican leaders drastically changed the bill in a conference committee intended to work out the differences and quickly pushed through votes in the House and Senate. The drastically altered bill had a new name, was much longer, and included the tax credits.

The Legislature later passed a law altering the act and Bentley used that opportunity to try to delay implementation of the tax credits for two years. The Legislature overruled his veto.

The tax credit would equate to about $3,500 a year per student and the refund or rebate would be paid out of state sales tax revenue, according to the latest lawsuit.

The lawsuit also argues that the act does not require the tax credit to be used at non-public schools that are not failing and does not impose any requirements on the quality of education.

The plaintiffs also contend that the act does not require districts to accept students from failing schools.

Ross said the legislation was unnecessary and “disingenuous to be passed under the idea that you were trying to help students in failing schools and improve student achievement.” Looking at the bill, the senator said “it doesn’t do that at all.”

Attorneys for the AEA filed the lawsuit this week in Montgomery County Circuit Court. The defendants are Revenue Commissioner Julie Magee and state Comptroller Thomas White.

– posted by Sebastian Kitchen

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