Dalphine Wilson, a recently divorced African-American mother of two, is like many moms: She wanted a better opportunity for her kids. Grant, 9, and Evelyn, 6, used to go to Vaughn Road Elementary in Montgomery, Ala. But they were bored. Grant made As and Bs easily.
Last fall, Wilson enrolled Grant at St. Bede Elementary, a Montgomery Catholic school, but she couldn’t afford to send Evelyn too. She considered getting another job but then heard about the newly created Alabama Opportunity Scholarship Fund (AOSF). She applied for an income-based scholarship, and now both Grant and Evelyn attend St. Bede.
“You want your children to have shared and similar experiences,” Wilson said. “Now they have the same teachers and friends, and it took a load off my heart.” The children spend evenings poring over assignments at the kitchen table. Wilson sees a change in Grant. He carries himself better, and always leaves the house in the morning with his shirt tucked in and belt on.
The Alabama Accountability Act, passed last year, made it possible for students like Grant and Evelyn to attend private school, but the law faces scrutiny after Montgomery Circuit Court Judge Gene Reese ruled it unconstitutional last month.
The law had two parts: a tax credit available to parents of children in failing public schools, and scholarships for low-income families, no matter how their schools perform. Most of the state’s failing schools are predominantly African-American, with the majority of students receiving free or reduced lunch.
The law also authorized up to 12 scholarship-granting organizations (SGOs) like the one that gave scholarships to Grant and Evelyn. Although they didn’t attend a failing school, they were eligible for an income-based scholarship—and that’s how they ended up at St. Bede.
According to widely-published data, 93 percent of the students who took advantage of the tax credit provisions ended up in other public schools. Only 52 went to private schools. But most newspaper reports ignored the children who benefited from the law’s scholarship provisions. The Alabama Opportunity Scholarship Fund gave out 700 scholarships for the 2013-2014 school year alone, and plans to give out over 3,000 next year.
“This is not a public versus private debate,” said Lesley Searcy, executive director of AOSF. “It’s simply about parents who can’t afford to move to another district or can’t afford tuition.” Searcy said her group gave 83 percent of its scholarships to minority students, mainly in the urban centers of Mobile, Birmingham, Montgomery, and Huntsville. She said all 700 students transferred to private schools, because parents found them to be the best fit.
The Alabama Education Association challenged the law, claiming it took money away from the public schools, with president Anita Gibson describing the law as an “ill-conceived, unfairly punitive policy passed into law by trickery and deceit.”
Reese declared the law unconstitutional because he said lawmakers didn’t follow correct procedure in passing it: He said they changed its original intent, addressed more than one subject, and rushed it through in one day, all unconstitutional procedures in Alabama. That ruling allowed him to avoid the question of whether the law violates church-state separation.
The Institute for Justice, representing families that benefited from the law, has appealed the judge’s decision. Lawyer Dick Komer said the legislation’s journey through the state House and Senate was typical: Legislatures often change intent and quickly approve laws. He also argued that the law doesn’t violate the single subject rule because it deals with education, and that topic is broad enough to be considered a single subject.
Komer said even if the law loses on appeal, the legislature can always “repass in a constitutional way. This is very beneficial legislation, and lawmakers can do it right.”
On Monday Reese ruled the law can stay in effect while the appeal is pending. For now, families can still apply for scholarships or tax-credits.
Wilson hopes her children can continue to go to St. Bede. She tells everyone she meets about her support for the law, often writing on a napkin or any available piece of paper the web address of the scholarship organization that helped her kids. She gives interviews to local media. “I'm not one that doesn't share blessings or keep it a secret,” she said. “It wouldn’t be fair not to share this information.”