OCS super joins lawsuit against school choice

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 31, 2014

Opp City Schools Superintendent Michael Smithart joined superintendents of 29 other Alabama school systems in a lawsuit claiming the Alabama Accountability Act is unconstitutional.

The superintendents asked the state Supreme Court to uphold a ruling that said the law violates the state constitution.

Montgomery County Circuit Judge Gene Reese in May ruled that the “school choice” law was not constitutional, but state officials have since appealed to the Supreme Court.

“My reason for becoming a party to this action is primarily philosophical,” Smithart said. “I have great respect for the legislative process and in my opinion, the manner in which this law was passed is not reflective of my beliefs. If the intent was to fundamentally alter education in Alabama then these discussions should have been held publicly and allow for public input. That’s just how I believe. I believe if anything is that important, then it should be open and transparent and in my opinion, this was not.”

Superintendents filed a 20-page brief on Aug. 20, and cite negative financial impact from AAA on the public school system and its potential devastating financial impact.

“As far as the impact of AAA on Opp Schools, I think it’s minimal,” he said. “Diverting public dollars away from public schools is troubling to me. We are not on any failing schools list, and we never intend to be, but we need any and all state funds to maintain our program in order to meet the needs of our students. Robbing those dollars is, in my opinion, just wrong.”

When passed, the Alabama Accountability Act set up two new programs funded by income tax credit, thus reducing the amount of funding going to the Education Trust Fund.

The first tax credit allows parents of children in failing public schools to receive a tax credit up to $3,500 to transfer them to a private or non-failing school.

Another tax credit program gives an income tax credit for corporate and individuals who donate to scholarship organizations.

In the brief, the superintendents said that the small level of participation, only 52 students transferring from failing public schools to private schools, was far short of justifying the $40 million.

The Legislature allocated $40 million for the 2014 fiscal year education budget to cover the cost of the new law.

“It is without dispute that the vast and overwhelming majority of students and parents in Alabama will suffer adverse consequences if this unconstitutional legislation is allowed to stand,” the superintendents say in their court brief.

Smithart agreed that schools should be held accountable.

“I have no problem whatsoever being evaluated and measured on the basis of the job we do,” he said. “That’s not even an issue. I do believe that we have a process in place that can facilitate change in failing schools. I don’t believe the legislature has given this process a chance. When you look at schools and systems that have been taken over by the department of education, we can see the change.”

Smithart said state invention is successful.

“This is the ideal way,” he said. “We need to make failing schools successful, not remove the students. Change the school. This process works.”