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MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — A Montgomery woman who helps young prisoners get their GED certificates said she didn't want her two children to end up that way. That's why she pulled them out of a public school with discipline problems and sent them to a private school using scholarships from the new Alabama Accountability Act.
"I've been thrilled with the schooling and the school," Dalphine Wilson of Montgomery said.
Wilson's children, fourth-grader Grant and first-grader Evelyn, are among nearly 2,900 children awarded scholarships by the largest scholarship granting organization created under the Accountability Act, the Alabama Opportunity Scholarship Fund.
The fund's chairman, former Republican Gov. Bob Riley, said he's heard many similar stories about the impact of the Accountability Act. "It's a success story on steroids," he said.
It's also a story that could have a quick ending. Members of the state teachers' organization, the Alabama Education Association, challenged the constitutionality of the law in court and won in Montgomery County Circuit Court. The ruling by Judge Gene Reese is on appeal to the Alabama Supreme Court, and Reese is allowing the law to continue in effect during the appeal.
The Republican majority in the Alabama Legislature pushed through the Accountability Act in 2013 over opposition from Democrats. It provides tax credits for parents who move their children from a public school rated as failing to a non-failing public school or private school participating in the program. It also provides 100 percent tax credits for businesses and individuals who contribute to scholarship programs that help low-income students transfer to private schools.
If low-income students leaving failing schools don't use up the scholarships, the remainder can be awarded to low-income students who aren't attending failing public schools. With Riley's group, 1,474 scholarships were awarded to children zoned for failing schools and about 1,400 went to children who weren't.
That was the case with Wilson's children. She volunteered at their elementary school and was not pleased with what she saw even though the school was not failing. "The teaching environment was impaired by behavior problems," she said.
The divorced mom works as an assistant at a state technical college in Elmore County where young state inmates go to get their GED certificates and high school diplomas. She said the young offenders have a common background — they didn't get a good foundation in elementary school, they got behind their classmates, and they started causing trouble that eventually led to prison.
"You want more than that for your children," she said.
Gloria McMeans of Birmingham said a non-failing public school that had more than 20 students in a classroom wasn't working for her 10-year-old son, Keeynaad Slaughter, with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. She said teachers treated him differently from other students, which led to bullying, fights and long stays in the principal's office.
She didn't want the same outcome she had with her 26-year-old daughter, who didn't graduate high school.
In frustration, the food service employee moved out of her $700-per-month rental home and moved into public housing to be able to afford to send him to Mount Pilgrim Christian Academy in Fairfield.
"I first started paying the tuition myself," she said. Then she heard about the scholarship program, and it began to pick up the cost. She said that became crucial when she was badly injured in a traffic accident and became unemployed.
She said her son is thriving in a class of five students. "To see my son smile is telling me everything is OK now," she said.
Officials with the Alabama Opportunity Scholarship Fund said about 80 percent of their scholarship recipients are minorities and they have an annual household income of about $20,000.
Riley, a successful farmer and business owner, said people in his income bracket have always been able to choose the best school for their children, but others haven't.
"This is the first time in Alabama you've really had parental choice," he said.
The Accountability Act allows up to $25 million in tax credits each year for donations to scholarship organizations. In 2013, organizations nearly reached the $25 million ceiling, and Riley's group generated $17.8 million of that. Riley said he's involved because he's always been an advocate of school choice, but he could never pass legislation creating charter schools when he was governor.
"I'm not making a dime," he said.
The Alabama Education Associations says the tax credits for donors and parents reduce funding for public schools and finance private schools at the expense of public school students.
The chief architect of the Accountability Act, Republican Sen. Del Marsh of Anniston, said the tax credits are small compared to what the state spends on a school dropout who ends up on public assistance or in prison. He said he's proud of what he has seen so far and he is considering proposing legislation in 2015 to expand the Accountability Act.
"I think the public will demand we increase it when they see the success of this program," he said.
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