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Alabama struggles with how to get kids out of failing schools

Published: Saturday, Aug. 31 2013 6:00 p.m. MDT

In this Wednesday, July 10, 2013 photo, Mark Coleman, Michele Shepherd and Jack Moran, left to right, discuss education at the Linda Nolen Learning Center in Pelham, Ala. Shepherd is principal of the school, which is attended by Coleman's and Moran's daughters. The school serves only special-needs students and has a waiting list, but it is designated as "failing" under a new Alabama law.

Jay Reeves, AP

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Alabama's attempts to help kids in failing schools was challenged this month when the Southern Poverty Law Center sued the state to halt a new scholarship and tax credit program that grants $3,500 refundable tax credits to parents of children in failing schools.

The tax credits for parents, which essentially amount to vouchers because they translate to cash for parents with no tax liability, are available only to parents of kids in one of 78 "failing" schools, as outlined in the law, and they are only available if the child is removed from the failing school to a private school or another public school.

Alabama schools consistently score near the bottom on national tests, a problem the legislature is anxious to address. So legislators looked this year to Florida, a leader in scholarship tax credit front, and 12 other states with similar programs already in place.

But the Southern Poverty Law Center doesn't see a scholarship fund that moves the kids of motivated parents out of failing schools as an answer.

"Having 78 failing schools in Alabama is a shame," said Jerri Katzerman, an attorney with SPLC, arguing that the tax credit program is not a solution. "In fact, it's going to make it harder for those schools to break out of that cycle."

Diverting funds?

While the SPLC's legal case invokes an "equal protection" argument, the core discontent with the Alabama law centers on the diversion of funds from public schools that badly need them.

"All of this money is being diverted from the education trust fund," Katzerman said.

Public school teachers agree.

"The role of public education funding in Alabama is to educate our children, not to provide welfare to private schools," said Gregory Graves, associate executive secretary of the Alabama Education Association in a statement. "The Alabama Accountability Act takes money from all of Alabama’s children that need it and redistributes it to a small number of private schools which is a clear violation of our state’s constitution.”

There are 51 private schools currently on the participating-schools list offered by the Department of Education. Almost all of those are either Catholic or Christian schools.

The Southern Poverty Law Center and critics like Graves argue that this diverts badly needed funds from already-struggling school districts. But defenders say that it saves the state money by moving many children to private schools, which cost much less than public education.

Defenders of scholarship tax credit programs point to Florida's popular scholarship program, now the largest such program in the country, providing tuition scholarship for 51,000 students. A 2008 study by the state's Office of Program and Policy Analysis found that that state saves $1.49 for every dollar spent on its scholarship tax credits.

Defining failure

The state Department of Education is committed to enforcing the law as it is written, said Michael Sibley, director of communication for the department.

When the initial list of legally defined failing schools was released in June, Education Department Secretary Tommy Bice was apologetic, telling AL.com that the list would include some schools that were very bad, and would also include some making great improvement.

"You are also going to see on the list some schools that have shown unbelievable growth over the last six years that are actually models for what school improvement can look like," Bice said.

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