The Catholic school is the second private school in Calhoun County to qualify for the scholarships, which were created by a law passed by the Alabama Legislature earlier this year.
The Alabama Accountability Act offers a state income tax credit to parents of students in "failing" public schools if they choose to send their children to private schools instead. The new law also created a tax credit for businesses or people who donate to nonprofit scholarships for students in families below the poverty level.
Anniston Middle School is the only school in Calhoun County on the state's list of "failing" schools. The city's school board has already decided to close Anniston Middle in coming years.
State officials have said the tax credit would amount to about $3,500 per year, but families could get that tax credit only if they send their children to a school that also accepts the nonprofit scholarships.
Many private schools — including Sacred Heart — initially rejected the idea of accepting those scholarships because of paperwork the program required, as well as the possibility that the scholarship might open the door to further state regulation of private schools.
Sacred Heart principal Charlie Maniscalco said leaders at the Diocese of Birmingham made the decision to accept the scholarships.
"The whole diocese is participating in it," Maniscalco said.
Roughly half of the 48 private schools now qualifying for the scholarships are Catholic schools.
Rev. John McDonald, director of Catholic education for the Birmingham diocese, said all 22 of the eligible schools in the diocese have applied to qualify for the scholarships.
“We have tried to be at the forefront of the school choice initiative because the parent is the primary educator of the child,” he said.
He said Catholic schools have always valued accessibility, and have looked for ways to make parochial schools open to children whose families can’t afford the tuition.
“Part of my job is to literally beg for money to help children go to school,” McDonald said.
While the Accountability Act’s tuition tax credits have received the most attention in recent months, McDonald said the diocese was most interested in the tax credits for donations to scholarship programs. He said the diocese has already created at scholarship-granting organization, or SGO, called Beacons of Hope, and is hoping people will donate to it.
“You can pay the state or you can pay the SGO,” he said.
Critics of the Accountability Act have said the law hands school tax revenue over to private schools. The Education Trust Fund, which pays for the state’s schools, is largely funded through income taxes.
“Any time you take money out of the ETF, it’s bad for schools,” said Amy Marlowe, spokeswoman for the Alabama Education Association, which has opposed the Accountability Act.
Private schools are typically slow to participate in tax-credit or voucher programs, said Don Soifer, an education analyst for the Lexington Institute, a Virginia-based think tank that supports school-choice programs.
“Independent schools are independent for a reason,” Soifer said. “They want to develop some familiarity with a program before they participate.”
Soifer said he’s not surprised that Catholic schools figure so prominently among the early adopters of the scholarships. Compared to other private schools, Catholic schools have traditionally focused more on reaching students from low-income families, he said.
“The way the Catholic school system has developed in this country has led it to be willing to accept as many students as it can, from a wide variety of backgrounds,” he said.
Soifer said that in other states, Catholic schools have begun to feel pressure from charter schools. Last year, the number of students in charter schools surpassed the number of students in Catholic schools nationwide, he said.
“Charter schools have become very good at making a quantitative case for their benefit to students,” he said. That talent has helped charter schools compete not just for students, but for donors, Soifer said.
Alabama doesn’t have charter schools. The last attempt to create a charter system failed in the Legislature in 2012.
Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said he discussed the Accountability Act with leaders of Catholic schools in Montgomery and found them to be open to accepting the scholarships.
“It’s part of their mission to help low-income students,” he said.
Maniscalco said Sacred Heart has about 270 students this year, and could handle a student body of up to 350. The school year at Sacred Heart started Aug. 7, Maniscalco said, and so far no one has inquired about the scholarships.
The principal said he wished the tax credits were available to parents who are already enrolled at Sacred Heart. Under the Accountability Act, the tax credits are open only to students who switch to private school after being registered for a "failing" public school.
"There are families who've already made the decision to come here, but they won't get the tax credit because they didn't make the decision this year," he said. "That's not fair."
Tuition at Sacred Heart ranges from around $4,000 to $5,000, depending on the student's grade level, Maniscalco said.
The question of whether the tax credit should go to students already enrolled in private schools was a major point of contention when the Accountability Act was being debated and rewritten in the Legislature this year.
By some early estimates, the cost of extending tax credits to all private school students in "failing" school zones could have risen above $300 million per year. The Legislature set aside $40 million in the 2014 budget to offset the cost of the tax credit.
Marsh said he intends to introduce a bill in the 2014 session that would extend the tax credit to families zoned for “failing” schools who are already in private school. He said the bill would likely include limits that keep families above a certain income level from getting the tax credit, in an effort to keep the cost of the tax credit down.
So far, Trinity Christian Academy in Oxford is the only other Calhoun County private school to qualify for the scholarships.
Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.