Judge delays signing of school tax credit bill; question raised over fed vs. state jurisdiction
by Tim Lockette
tlockette@annistonstar.com
Mar 06, 2013 | 7892 views |  0 comments | 11 11 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Anniston High School could be considered ‘failing’ under a bill passed by the Alabama Legislature, but officials said Tuesday they weren’t sure. (Anniston Star photo by Bill Wilson)
Anniston High School could be considered ‘failing’ under a bill passed by the Alabama Legislature, but officials said Tuesday they weren’t sure. (Anniston Star photo by Bill Wilson)
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MONTGOMERY — A Montgomery circuit court judge temporarily blocked Gov. Robert Bentley from signing a bill Tuesday that would provide tax credits for parents who take their children out of “failing” schools and into private schools.

While lawyers were debating in the state capital, school officials in Calhoun County began to question whether the bill would conflict with federal court orders that have bound local school systems since the end of segregation.

“I’m fairly certain a federal court order would take precedence over state law,” said Joan Frazier, superintendent of Anniston City Schools.

Frazier and school officials across the state have spent the past few days trying to figure out what the Alabama Accountability Act, passed last week, would mean for their schools.

The bill began life as a school flexibility measure, backed by many school administrators. As originally written, the bill allowed schools to enter into “flexibility contracts” that would allow them to opt out of some statewide regulations in pursuit of educational goals.

The bill’s length more than doubled in the hours before its final passage, as Republican leaders in the Senate — including Sen. Del Marsh of Anniston and Sen. Gerald Dial of Lineville — added wording that would provide a tax credit of up to $7,500 for parents of students zoned for “failing” schools. Families would get the tax credit if they pulled out of those schools and enrolled in private schools, or transferred to other public schools.

School officials, school policy advocates and even the bill’s Senate supporters say they’re still not sure how many schools would qualify as “failing” under the bill’s rules, or how much the bill would cost.

“You won’t know the cost of this for a year or so down the road,” said Marsh, president pro tempore of the Senate.

Marsh and other advocates of the bill say it will liberate students stuck in poor-quality public schools. But the eleventh-hour rewrite of the bill has angered even some of the bill’s original supporters and led to accusations that the bill was passed in violation of legislative rules.

The Alabama Education Association, the state’s largest teacher’s association, filed suit against the bill Tuesday, seeking to block Bentley from signing the bill. The AEA argued that the bill’s last-minute rewrite violated legislative rules and the state’s open meetings act.

In testimony in a Montgomery courtroom Tuesday, Sen. Quinton Ross, D-Montgomery, testified that he was one of six members of a conference committee tasked Thursday with reconciling the House and Senate versions of the 9-page School Flexibility Act, which had passed both chambers.

Ross testified that the conference committee went into recess as soon as it met. The four Republican members of the committee, including Marsh and Dial, left the meeting and returned with a 27-page bill now called the Alabama Accountability Act, Ross testified.

“They were passing out a totally different piece of legislation,” Ross said.

Lawyers for the state attorney general’s office argued that the court didn’t have jurisdiction over the rules of the Legislature, and said that lawmakers have the power to dispense with their own rules.

“Passing the act is in essence a suspension of the rules, or setting the rule aside,” said Margaret Fleming, chief of the constitutional defense division of the attorney general’s office.

“The argument that you’re making is that rules don’t mean anything,” Judge Charles Price said. Before the hearing Price restricted the Legislature from sending the bill to Bentley for approval. That ruling is in effect, lawyers in the case said, until an evidentiary hearing at 8:30 a.m. today.

Dial said he’s received a summons to appear in that court proceeding. He said he never broke the state’s Open Meetings Act, and helped rewrite the bill to address critics’ concerns.

“I wanted to make sure it didn’t do away with tenure or create charter schools,” he said.

Bentley made it clear that he’d sign the bill at the earliest opportunity.

“If the bill comes across to me today, and there’s no restraining order, I’ll sign it,” Bentley said Tuesday.

Bentley said the virtues of the school-flexibility provisions in the bill were getting lost in the debate over the tax credits. He said he did not yet know how much the tax credits would cost the state in lost tax revenue.

School administrators’ groups have offered widely different estimates of the bill’s cost to the state — from $35 million to $367 million. One reason the bill’s cost is so hard to estimate is that it’s still unclear which districts are considered “failing” and who would qualify for tax credits.

Anniston High School would seem to be on the “failing” list, which would include schools that have been part of the state’s application for federal School Improvement Grants.

But Frazier, the Anniston school superintendent, said it still wasn’t clear that the bill would affect any Anniston school.

Marsh said late Tuesday that he didn’t know whether any Anniston schools would be on the “failing” list.

“I’ve asked the state Department of Education for a list, and I’m still waiting,” he said.

The Alabama Department of Education released a statement Monday asking for the standards for failing schools to be clarified.

The bill would allow students to transfer out of failing schools and go to private schools — or to go to a public school if that school can take them. Frazier said Tuesday morning that she was open to allowing Anniston students to “flex out” of her school system if that’s what the law demands.

“We won’t stand in the way,” she said.

She later called The Star to say that public-to-public school transfers might not be possible after all. Like many Alabama school districts, Anniston’s schools are still bound by a court order issued to end segregation.

“Under the court order, if you live in Anniston and you go to a public school, you go to the school you’re zoned for,” she said.

Jon Paul Campbell, superintendent of Jacksonville City Schools, said he, too, thought court orders would create complications for student transfers. He said his school system might take students from other districts, though budget cutbacks have made it hard to deal with sudden surges in the student population.

“We haven’t even had textbook money to speak of for about seven years,” he said. He said the loss of income tax revenue due to the tax credits would make the budget situation worse.

Piedmont City Schools superintendent Matt Akin said his system might have room for as many as 100 or 200 new students. But students from other districts are already accepted in Piedmont.

“We have open enrollment,” he said. “We already have students from other counties.”

One Anniston private school headmaster welcomed the bill’s passage.

“It took me by surprise as much as it did the Democrats, only my surprise was pleasant,” said Bob Phillips, headmaster of Faith Christian School. Phillips said his school could accept an additional 100 students from public schools.

Rep. Barbara Boyd, D-Anniston, said the way the bill was passed was “unscrupulous,” and said the bill would lead to both private and public schools trying to recruit strong athletes away from Anniston and other high-poverty schools.

Marsh said the goal was to create competition that would improve the state’s schools. Over time, he said, that competition would bring down the bill’s cost.

“The goal is to get all these failing schools out of failed status,” he said. “Then there won’t be any tax credits.”

Capitol & statewide correspondent: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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