MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Chanting and carrying signs saying, "School Choice Now," parents and students rallied on the lawn of the Alabama Capitol on Wednesday urging state politicians to provide more publicly funded education options.
The school choice rally came as Republicans prepare to make a push for charter schools in the upcoming legislative session. House Speaker Mike Hubbard and Alabama Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, speaking during the event, promised to pass the legislation in the session that begins in March.
Hubbard said too many parents are forced each morning to send their children to schools that aren't the best fit for their children.
"They deserve access to good quality education, whether public or private, no matter where they live, no matter their zip code ... no matter their income," Hubbard said.
Charter schools are publicly funded schools that operate outside the rules and regulations of regular public schools. Alabama is one of eight states that do not allow public charter schools, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
The charter school bill will be Republicans' first major school choice push after passing the 2013 Alabama Accountability Act. The law gives tax credits to help parents move their child from a failing public school to a private school. Individuals and corporations can also get tax credits for donations to scholarships to help families pay for private school.
Both initiatives took center stage during the Wednesday rally.
Dalphne Wilson of Montgomery said the Accountability Act scholarship lets her send her daughter to a private Catholic school that her son already attended.
Wilson said she thought the teachers at her daughter's previous public school were doing the best they could, but they were dealing with myriad challenges every day, including unmotivated students.
"Now, she's surrounded by high expectations," Wilson said.
The crowd was made up of primarily African-American families. Duncan Kirkwood, director at Alabama Black Alliance for Educational Options, said too often minority students are zoned for schools that have historically underperformed.
"Every child has a different need and parents, even if they don't have access to money, should have access to options," said Kirkwood said.
A Democratic state senator and a public school superintendent filed a lawsuit challenging the Accountability Act as an illegal use of public school funds to support private and religious schools. The Alabama Supreme Court heard arguments in December but has yet to issue a ruling.
In perhaps a preview of the legislative fights past and future, marchers passed by the Alabama Education Association building where a group waved signs in counter protest. The state teachers' organization has been at odds for the past four years with the education policies pushed by the new GOP-supermajority. AEA officials said public school funds are too limited in Alabama to be drained off to private schools or new charter schools.
"Parents can choose to send their children to faith-based schools. They can choose to send their children to private schools. We don't ask the taxpayers to fund that choice," AEA President Anita Gipson said.
AEA Associate Executive Secretary Greg Graves said charter schools nationally have not proved to be any better than regular public schools.
Republican Gov. Robert Bentley and GOP legislators named charter schools a top legislative priority in 2012 but the effort flopped under internal disagreements and political opposition.