According to numbers provided by the Alabama Department of Education, more than 700 students transferred to schools within their home districts, with 18 more transferring to other public school districts, and 52 taking advantage of tax credits to attend private schools.
Anniston Schools Superintendent Joan Frazier said that prior to Wednesday no one had filed paperwork with her office to take advantage of the tax credit provided to those who transfer to private schools under the act.
But at Trinity Christian Academy in Oxford, a local private school accepting transfers under the Accountability Act, a sixth-grade student zoned for Anniston Middle School attended the academy for the first time Wednesday, according to academy administrator Jeff Smith.
Smith said the student’s family interviewed with school officials Tuesday and the student began attending classes the following day. He said the family moved to Anniston over the summer and “were not pleased with the school situation there.” He said he’s had inquiries about transfers from about 10 families, but so far only two zoned for failing schools have enrolled. Smith said his school also had a seventh-grader transfer in from a “failing” school in the Talladega City Schools.
Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic School is the only Anniston private school that agreed to accept students under the Alabama Accountability Act. Principal Charles Maniscalco said the school has received between five and eight inquiries, but none of those students has actually registered at Sacred Heart.
Although he doesn’t know for sure, Maniscalco said he thinks part of what’s keeping families from actually making the transfers is the up-front money they’d have to pay to send their children to his school: a $450 registration fee and the $4,600 tuition for middle-school aged students, which is usually broken down into a $460 monthly fee over the school year. Parents can receive up to $3,500 in tax credit under the act. Smith said at Trinity, parents pay nearly $4,000 each year in tuition, with a registration fee of $150 and book fee of $120.
State Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said he’s pleased overall with the implementation of the law and said he expects more children to take advantage of transfer opportunities next year, when the program is more solidly in place. The vast majority of parents have chosen to send their students to other public school systems, which means the law does not put the critical strain on the Education Trust Fund many opponents of the law predicted, he added.
Marsh said requirements of a federal school desegregation court case have complicated the accountability act in some districts, including Anniston City Schools.
Frazier said that she sent out a letter — crafted with the help of the board’s attorney and others involved in the federal suit — to parents in July explaining that she would not approve any transfers to other public school systems for Anniston Middle School students. The settlement of the suit, Lee v. Macon, requires that students living in Anniston attend the public schools for which they are zoned, she said.
“We as a system, because we still operate under the Lee v. Macon order, cannot legally transfer any student to any other public school,” she said. “The Accountability Act does not override the federal order.”
Marsh said he’d like to see Alabama get out from under the desegregation orders imposed by Lee v. Macon.
“It makes no sense that you would deny a young person the opportunity to transfer out from a failing district ...They’re already predominantly minority systems,” he said. “Over time, I would like to see those students in those areas transfer to another public system that’s not failing.”
Marsh said he’s encouraging Attorney General Luther Strange to create a special division of his office to focus on working with the Department of Justice to get Alabama schools out from under the desegregation orders.
“It is my intent, once I confirm with the attorney general that he thinks it’s a path worth going down, to look at allocating dollars specifically to help us get out from under these lawsuits,” Marsh said. The senator said the money should come from education funds.
State Sen. Trip Pittman, R-Baldwin, chairs the Senate committee that oversees education funding. He said he believes there would have to be a line item dedicated for such an allocation. Because of that, he said, he doesn’t believe there’s money in the current budget to support fighting Lee v. Macon, a measure he said he supports. Pittman said he was unsure whether education funds could be allocated to fight the consent decrees.
Requests for comment on the issue from the Attorney General’s office were not returned Wednesday.
Staff writer Paige Rentz: 256-235-3564. On Twitter @PRentz_Star.