Gov. Riley's group awards 1,474 scholarships

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MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — An organization headed by former Gov. Bob Riley has awarded nearly 1,500 scholarships for students to attend private schools rather than failing public schools.

The Alabama Opportunity Scholarship Fund released enrollment figures Monday along with an audit report by an accounting firm saying none of its board members, including Riley, received any money.

"I'm not making a dime out of this," Riley said.

The organization raised $17.8 million in donations in 2013. The 1,474 scholarships it has awarded went to students who qualified for free or reduced-price school lunches and were zoned for schools rated as failing by state education officials. It plans to award about 1,400 more scholarships to low-income students not zoned for failing public schools.

Riley said the program is giving a choice to parents who never had it because of their low incomes. "I want that mother and father to have an option to make a choice for what they think is best for the kid," he said in an interview.

The Alabama Opportunity Scholarship Fund is the largest scholarship granting organization operating under the Alabama Accountability Act. The Republican majority in the Legislature passed the act in 2013.

It allows students zoned for schools rated as failing by the state Department of Education to transfer to non-failing public schools or 162 private schools participating in the program. Parents can receive tax breaks to cover the cost of the transfers.

It also provides for scholarship granting organizations like Riley's to raise money to award scholarships for low-income students to attend private school. Donors get a 100 percent tax credit. If there are not enough low-income students zoned for failing public schools to use up the scholarships by Sept. 15 each year, then the organizations can award them to other low-income students.

Riley's organization said current recipients come from all 27 counties with failing schools, about 80 percent are minorities, and their families average making $20,000 per year.

Serving with Riley on the board is John Kirtley, a businessman who founded a similar organization in Florida 13 years ago. Riley's group operates as a subsidiary of Kirtley's Step Up for Students. Riley said being a subsidiary allowed the Alabama organization a fast startup.

The Accountability Act allows tax credits of up to $25 million a year for donations, which Riley's group dominated in the first year. His group is not releasing its donors because Riley said they don't want to be subject to the criticism he and others have faced from opponents of the Accountability Act.

Members of the Alabama Education Association challenged the act in court and won before Montgomery County Circuit Judge Gene Reese. Reese ruled that the Legislature violated the Constitution by putting more than one subject in the law and by changing the legislation from its original purpose of school flexibility, which had virtually no cost, to tax credits.

Reese has put his ruling on hold while the case is appealed to the Alabama Supreme Court.

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, architect of the Accountability Act, said that assuming proponents win on appeal, he's looking at expanding the program like has happened in Florida. Kirtley said Florida's program now has a $350 million cap and serves about 70,000 students.

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