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Judge blocks bill giving kids school choice

An effort to help students escape failing schools has run into some familiar road blocks: tenure, teachers unions and a judge.

Circuit Judge Charles Price blocked Alabama’s governor from signing a school choice bill after a lawsuit claimed that lawmakers didn’t follow state rules when they heavily revised the legislation in committee.

The Alabama Accountability Act would give tax credits to parents of students at failing schools so they could attend private schools or another public school.

The teachers union group, the Alabama Education Association, filed a lawsuit Monday night to stop it. The judge scheduled a hearing for mid-March and prevented lawmakers from sending the bill to the governor.

Late Thursday afternoon, Republicans filed an appeal with the Alabama Supreme Court seeking to lift Price’s temporary restraining order on the bill.

The appeal asks, “Whether the circuit court erred in entering a temporary restraining order prohibiting legislative officials from enrolling and transmitting a bill that has passed both houses of the Legislature to the governor for his signature or veto, as those officials are required to do under the Alabama Constitution?”

Back in February, almost all the education groups in Alabama joined Gov. Robert Bentley and Republican legislative leaders in endorsing the original plan to give city and county school boards more flexibility to comply with state education laws.

But the AEA and Democratic lawmakers opposed the bill over concerns about teacher tenure laws.

The House and Senate then passed different versions of the bill. It went to a conference committee for compromise. The committee tripled the bill’s size, adding tax credits for parents to move their children from a failing public school to another public or private school.

Republicans called the bill life-altering for children stuck in poorly performing schools. But outraged Democrats called it “sleaziness” and a “bait and switch,” and near-pandemonium broke out in the state Senate.

Despite the rancor, the bill passed in the House 51-26 and in the Senate 22-11.

State Sen. Del Marsh is a Republican member of the conference committee and a defendant in the lawsuit. He says there had been no violation of the Open Meetings Act.

“These stalling tactics are a sham by the same special interest elite that have held our state back for far too long,” he said in a statement.

The governor tweeted, “This bill is the greatest thing to happen to education in many years and will give schools the chance to improve.”

Bentley said he didn’t talk with state school superintendents about changes to the legislation because they would have tried to kill it.

“Take away all of this trust stuff. Take away all of these folks that are upset. I don’t care. Let me tell you what I care about. I care about those children who are failing in those schools and they have no way out,” said Bentley.

Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, said the bill will “provide some competition for these failing schools.”

“In the business world if you are not doing a good job, and someone comes in and does a better job, you either get better or you go out of business,” Hubbard said.

Rep. Mary Moore, D-Birmingham shouted, “Welcome to the new confederacy where a bunch of white men are now going to take over black schools.”

“What they’re trying to do is give public money to private schools,” Mabry said.

Actually, the bill would give parents of children in failing schools an income tax credit equal to 80 percent of the average annual state cost for attendance of a public K-12 student. That would help offset the cost of private school or a transfer to another public school.

The Department of Education defines a failing school as one in the bottom 10 percent of statewide reading and math scores, has earned three consecutive Ds or an F on upcoming school report cards, or is designated by the Department of Education as failing.

Another provision in the bill would help families who do not earn enough to receive a tax credit and whose children are in failing schools.

The state Department of Revenue would have to set up a nonprofit organization to provide scholarships to students in failing schools to transfer to a better school.

Businesses could get tax credits equal to 50 percent of their donation to that organization. Individuals could get tax credits worth 100 percent of their donation.

The bill would also allow failing schools to offer incentives or other employment to teachers who waive tenure protections.

Thursday’s appeal by GOP lawmakers means the issue will now go before Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore. He was sworn in for a second stint as the state’s top judge in January.

Moore was removed from his position as chief justice of Alabama’s Supreme Court in 2003, because he refused to remove a handmade Ten Commandments marker from his courthouse. Moore has been a periodic WND columnist and has written “…what many do not understand is that it was a constitutional issue, not about the Ten Commandments or a monument – but whether the state of Alabama could acknowledge God as the sovereign source of law, liberty, and government.”