Expansion plans are in place locally, but private school leaders aren’t expecting an influx of new students if a controversial education flexibility bill becomes law.
The state Legislature passed a bill titled the Alabama Accountability Act last week that allows students to receive $3,500 in state aid to transfer from a public school declared academically failing to a private school.
A Montgomery Circuit Court judge issued an injunction Wednesday that stopped Gov. Robert Bentley from signing the bill into law. The judge scheduled a March 15 hearing to discuss the next step.
The Alabama Education Association-backed lawsuit alleges lawmakers violated the Open Meetings Act and legislative rules when they radically changed the bill in conference committee.
“We may see some increase,” said Randy Skipper, executive director of the Alabama Independent School Association, “but we don’t think there’s going to be a rush of new students.”
While the bill appears to be a boon to private schools, their leaders are concerned about the strings attached.
To offset a portion of tuition, the bill would provide a tax credit of about $3,500 per student.
For a taxpayer owing less than the credit amount in state taxes, the difference would be paid to the school.
One drawback of the process is it requires parents to wait for reimbursement.
The credit also does not cover full tuition, which is $5,000 to $6,000 annually at area private schools. The bill would set up a $25 million scholarship fund that could offset the difference in the tax credit and tuition. Skipper said there could be participation requirements, such as private school students taking the same accountability tests as public schools to qualify for the scholarship.
Decatur Heritage Headmaster Scott Mayo said he wants to see the requirements first.
“There are some things that we don’t do right now because I think they’re stupid to do,” Mayo said. “I don’t intend to do anything superfluous.”
Decatur Heritage, Athens Bible School and Lindsay Lane Christian Academy in Athens are local private schools most likely to be impacted by the bill because they are near public schools considered failing.
The status of Brookhaven Middle School or Decatur High Developmental could impact Decatur Heritage. Tanner High’s failing status could impact Athens Bible and Lindsay Lane.
If Brookhaven’s history is an indication, Mayo said, he doesn’t expect a large number of transfers.
After failing to meet accountability goals for three straight years, Brookhaven students were allowed to transfer in August to Cedar Ridge or Oak Park middle schools.
Decatur Public Schools Superintendent Ed Nichols said 187 of Brookhaven’s 621 students transferred.
“I don’t think there’s going to be a mass exodus,” Mayo said. “Those who were disgruntled moved to Cedar Ridge or Oak Park when it was free to do so. Most chose to stay.”
Private school leaders said the number allowed to enroll will be limited by the space available.
Athens Bible Principal Randall Adams said he has 315 students, and he figures about 60 more “spread out among the 13 grades” can be accommodated.
Mayo estimated Decatur Heritage could add about 30 middle school students and another 20 in other grades to its 3,587 enrollment.
Lindsay Lane opened with 40 students four years ago and is up to 324 on three campuses, said Lori Edgemon, principal and interim administrator.
“We still have room to grow on all three campuses,” Edgemon said.
All three have an expansion or new schools planned. Decatur Heritage is closest to adding classrooms, but Mayo said that could be at least a year away.
“We still have to conduct a capital campaign,” Mayo said.
Athens Bible bought land on U.S. 31 for a new school, but Adams said it will be at least 2016 before construction begins.
Edgemon said the goal is to build a new school, but a site has not been purchased.
Federal law requires public schools to provide special education services for private school students.
One concern mentioned among bill opponents is whether it would be disadvantageous to non-white students. Alabama’s private schools are predominantly white.
Adams said Athens Bible is 97 percent white. Decatur Heritage is roughly 93 percent white, Mayo said. Edgemon said she did not know her school’s racial makeup.
Adams and Mayo said racial demographics are not part of their enrollment criteria.
Both said entrance requirements are based on academics and discipline.
“If they meet the criteria, I don’t care what the demographics are,” Mayo said. “We’ll follow our normal admittance procedure for every student.”
Bayne Hughes can be reached at 256-340-2432 or email@example.com.
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