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Liberal judge strikes down Alabama’s school choice law, ruling unlikely to withstand appeal

Montgomery Circuit Court
Montgomery Circuit Court

Montgomery Circuit Judge Eugene W. Reese today ruled the Alabama Accountability Act (AAA) unconstitutional. The Act, which is Alabama’s first-ever school choice law, was passed by Republicans in 2013 over the vocal dissent of the Alabama Education Association (AEA) and their Democratic allies. Since then, the law has withstood numerous legal challenges.

Most recently, U.S. District Judge Keith Watkins dismissed a lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) seeking to permanently block the law’s implementation.

In short, the Southern Poverty Law Center argued that since the law does not rescue every Alabama child stuck in a chronically failing school, it should not be allowed to rescue any Alabama children who are stuck in a chronically failing school.

Judge Watkins slapped down that argument in no uncertain terms.

“The requested remedy is arguably mean: Withdraw benefits from those students who can afford to escape non-failing schools,” said Watkins. “The only remedy requested thus far would leave the plaintiffs in exactly the same situation to which they are currently subject, but with the company of their better-situated classmates. The equal protection requested is, in effect, equally bad treatment.”

Judges on the Montgomery Circuit Court, which is typically friendly territory for the AEA, sought to block the law in two separate cases arguing that the Legislature violated open meetings laws in the way the bill was passed. The Alabama Supreme Court dismissed both of those cases after the rulings were appealed.

Today’s ruling, also in Montgomery Circuit Court, was in response to a suit filed by the AEA, Democrat state Sen. Quinton Ross, and the Lowndes County School Superintendent. They took a different legal approach, arguing that the AAA violated Alabama’s Constitution by, among other things, including more than one subject in the bill. The original bill allowed local school districts to apply to receive flexibility from certain state regulations, but was ultimately expanded to include the school choice provisions as well.

Only in extremely rare occasions are laws struck down for violating the single-subject rule. Responsible court’s show a great deal of deference to the Legislature as long as different parts of a bill are conceivably connected. Several legal experts Yellowhammer spoke with today said it is extremely unlikely that today’s ruling will withstand appeal.

Bert Gall from the Institute for Justice, which represented three parents whose families had benefited from the new school choice law, said they plan to appeal the ruling.

“Today’s ruling is both disappointing and wrong,” said Gall. “Alabama parents should be able to choose the best education possible for their children, whether that’s in a public or private school. We will appeal the trial court’s decision, and we are confident that we will ultimately prevail.”

Judge Reese’s ruling today blocks implementation of the law prospectively, meaning it will have no impact on the tax credits awarded during the 2013-2014 school year.

Almost 800 students took advantage of the Accountability Act in its first semester by transferring out of their chronically failing school and into a better situation. And in spite of the AEA’s claims that it would decimate public education, only 52 students transferred to a private school.

Also of interest is the fact that the current case has been awaiting action by Judge Reese since Feb. 6, but he did not act on it until late May, less than a week out from primary elections. Additionally, sources with knowledge of the proceedings told Yellowhammer that the judge’s order is the exact proposed order given to him by AEA lawyers. Each side got to offer proposed orders, which is not unusual, but it is uncommon for a judge to just sign it exactly as written by one side or the other.

Yellowhammer will have more on this ruling in the coming days.

Follow Cliff on Twitter @Cliff_Sims

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