Judge tosses bill

Published 9:01 pm Tuesday, March 5, 2013

A Montgomery judge on Tuesday blocked a controversial school bill that would give parents a tax credit to send their children to private school as attention focused on the way the bill was passed.

Republicans criticized the judge’s actions, which came as the result of a lawsuit filed by the Alabama Education Association.

The bill — which Gov. Robert Bentley had planned to sign until Circuit Judge Charles Price enjoined it — would allow parents in districts with “failing” schools a tax break if they send their children to private schools. Various reports put the tax break at about $3,500. Essentially, state money will follow the student, rather than the school.

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State Sen. Marc Keahey, D-Grove Hill, said Tuesday that backers of the bill showed “blatant disregard for the rules and disrespect” for fellow Senate members.

“We have rules we are all supposed to follow, but they were thrown out the window on Thursday night,” Keahey said.

The bill started out as an eight-page school flexibility bill supported widely by education officials but was changed and expanded in a conference committee shortly before a vote on Thursday night. School officials — including local superintendents Lynn Smith in Brewton and Randall Little of Escambia County Schools — said the new bill will hurt public school by diverting funds to private institutions.

Keahey — who said he attended private school, as do his children — said public money should not fund private schools.

“That’s a decision we make every year,” Keahey said of his family’s attendance at private school. “It’s our decision. That’s a choice, and I think people should have that choice. But to believe that taxpayers should contribute to private education, I just don’t see how that’s good policy. I’m not opposed to private schools, but our calling as a Legislature is to fund public education in Alabama.”

Reaction among local residents was mixed.

Local Tea Party activist Danny Joyner said the bill is a “children’s civil rights education act.”

“This allows children to have the right to an education,” he said. “No child will be dumbed down by a system that tries to treat everybody the same. … Instead of the dollars going to the teachers, the dollars follow the student.”

Responding to a question on Facebook, Robert Marks said he appreciates the bill.

“As a parent I would want the option of giving my child the best education possible,” he said. “If I lived in a failing school district I would like the option of being able to move her and give her a better chance. As a taxpayer I appreciate the state of Alabama now giving me that option.”

But local minister Willie Blue said, “Private schools do not completely solve the problem. We must save our public school system.”

As Democrats and Republicans prepared for a legal fight over the bill, state Republican party chairman Bill Armistead criticized Judge Price for his actions Tuesday.

“With his decision, Charles Price put Democrat backroom crony politics ahead of the Alabama Constitution, the separation of powers and his own oath as a judge,”  Armistead said.

Meanwhile, Democrats pledged to reverse the bill if it becomes law.

“If you elect a Democratic majority to the legislature in 2014, our first priority will be to repeal this bill,” said House Minority Leader Craig Ford, D-Gadsden.