Judge halts flex bill

Published 12:03 am Thursday, March 7, 2013

Local county school board members should be very pleased with a Montgomery judge’s restraining order issued Tuesday to prevent Gov. Robert Bentley from signing a controversial bill giving tax credits to families zoned for “failing” schools to help pay for private school.

Some local school board members called the bill “a stab in the back” to educators school systems.

While there aren’t currently any schools in Covington County that would allow parents to qualify for the tax credit, county school board members said Tuesday they have totally withdrawn their support of the measure, originally written to give school systems flexibility in their curriculum.

“These are legislators that know nothing of the classroom,” said Covington County School Board Member Jeff Bailey. “They’re making bad decisions for the schools and students in this state.”

County School Board Member Sonny Thomasson called the legislation a “stab in the back” to school systems.

The group, however, praised local representative Mike Jones Jr. for voting against the measure.

Montgomery Circuit Judge Charles Price ‘s restraining order blocks the bill, titled the “Alabama Accountability Act,” until at least March 15, when he plans to hold a hearing on it.

The Alabama Education Association-backed lawsuit alleged lawmakers violated the Open Meetings Act and their own legislative rules when they added – what some called essentially a school voucher program – to a bill on a different subject.

“What the judge did today was preserve the integrity of the legislative process,” said Sen. Quinton Ross, D-Montgomery.

The original eight-page bill passed both houses of the legislature, but grew to 27 pages and was changed in scope in a conference committee last Thursday, shortly before votes were taken to pass it in the House and the Senate. Republicans who orchestrated the feat said they deliberately left educators out of the process.

Ross testified Tuesday that the conference committee took a lengthy recess when it first met on Feb. 28 to consider a bill that would let schools seek waivers from state laws and policies. Ross said when GOP members returned they had a new 27-page bill that included the tuition credits.

Price said evidence indicated that lawmakers might have violated their own rules and the state constitution.

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said lawmakers will immediately file an appeal to the Alabama Supreme Court. A spokeswoman for Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard said the appeal would be filed Wednesday.

“(The day’s) ruling was judicial activism at its worst,” Marsh said in a statement. “What we’re seeing is that union bosses and special interest groups will stop at nothing to protect the status quo.”

A lawyer representing Lynn Pettway, the AEA employee who filed the lawsuit, said at the March 15 hearing they will ask Price to enter a permanent injunction.

The bill approved by the GOP-majority would give income tax credits – estimated at $3,500-a-year – to families zoned for “failing” schools to pay for tuition at a private school or another public school.

The tax credit could also be taken by families who are zoned for “failing schools” but already send their children to private school.