Monday, August 19, 2013

Rural disadvantage finally considered in lawsuit over Alabama's school choice law

Debbie Elliott reported today for NPR on a lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center on behalf of rural and poor children who, the suit claims, will be harmed by Alabama's new school choice law, the Alabama Accountability Act.  More precisely, the allegation is that rural and poor students will not be helped by the law, while other groups of students stand to gain from the opportunity it provides for students attending a failing school to choose a different school or to have the state help pay for their attendance at a private school.  The story's lede follows:
Parents in some rural Alabama counties are asking a federal court to block a new state law that gives tax breaks to families who transfer out of failing schools. They argue that their children aren't getting a fair shot at a quality education. 
The law, passed in a controversial last-minute move by the state's Republican-controlled Legislature this year, provides a $3,500 tax credit for private school tuition or to offset the cost of transferring to a nonfailing public school. Tax breaks are also offered to people and businesses that donate to private scholarship funds to help students who can't otherwise afford to transfer.
Problem is that if you are at a "failing school" in a rural area, you probably don't have the means to get to the nearest non-failing school.  It's just not feasible.  As Elliott points out, most failing schools are surrounded by other failing schools, especially in rural areas.

Elliott quotes Mariah Russaw, whose seventh grader grandson, J.R., attends a failing school.  Russaw says she can't avail herself of the opportunity presented by the Alabama law.  
Lord have mercy. I would have to probably borrow money to get gas and I'd probably have to travel over 30 miles or longer, and I don't have the transportation to do that.
J.R. is in school in Clayton, Alabama, population 1,475. Clayton is in Barbour County, population 27,457, in southeast Alabama.  The county's poverty rate is 24.7%.

Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center explains the basis for the suit:
The problem with the act is that it creates two classes of students: one group of students who can escape failing schools and another group of students who cannot by virtue of their poverty or where they happen to live.  
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They go to schools or they're in grades where there are no nonfailing schools in their counties. They also don't have the means to send their children to private schools. Many of the private schools aren't even participating.
Of the 56 private schools participating in Alabama, most are in urban and suburban areas.  

As Elliott points out, the equal protection argument being made in this case is new among suits that have challenged these sorts of school choice laws.  Most suits challenging school choice laws--which have been pushed by legislatures in many states--have been based on the first amendment establishment clause because the laws the wind up supporting parochial schools.  A total of 21 states and the District of Columbia have enacted private-school-choice policies.   

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