By Mary Sell
MONTGOMERY — Colbert County schools and others in north Alabama are trying to figure out what the Alabama Accountability Act will mean for their federal desegregation orders.
“We have kind of bounced that question around,” Colbert County Superintendent Anthony Olivis said. “Right now, if you are zoned for a particular school and you want to attend another one, you can’t.”
Olivis said educators have “been left in the dark” about the act’s implications on their districts.
Some systems have said it will be “problematic.”
Lawrence County’s desegregation order has specific guidelines about where students can attend school. For instance, a white student coming from outside the county can only attend R.A. Hubbard, where enrollment is majority black.
The law, which gives a tax credit for students leaving schools classified as failing, allows students to attend any school they want.
“The law is flawed,” said Jerome Thompson, former attorney for the Lawrence County school system.
Alabama has 21 school systems statewide still under active desegregation orders, including Lauderdale and Colbert counties.
In Decatur, Superintendent Ed Nichols said he wasn’t sure how the law would affect Decatur’s 42-year-old desegregation order.
“We’re looking at that,” he said.
Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, the lawmaker behind the tax credits and school choice option, said Thursday he isn’t sure what the Accountability Act will mean for systems under desegregation orders, including Anniston City Schools.
“That is one of the issues we’ll be talking about with the Department of Education,” he said.
A spokeswoman for the education department said it is reviewing the Accountability Act, much of which it didn’t see prior to passage by lawmakers, and its impact on desegregation orders.
State Board of Education member Mary Scott Hunter, of Huntsville, said this issue and a few others fall into the “things to be sorted out” category.
“But, (desegregation orders) are federal law, and that’s going to trump local laws,” said Hunter, an attorney.
“That is a critical question because student assignment is assigned and approved by federal courts,” said board member Charles Elliott, of Decatur. He said public school-to-public school transfers will be most called into question.
“For Decatur, the assignments for elementary students (under the order) are very carefully drawn,” he said. “If a child is assigned one particular school zone, and then you send them to a different one, that’s going to be a problem.
“If a child withdraws and goes to a private school, that is in no way a defiance of the federal order.”
A similar taxpayer-funded voucher law that allows students to attend private schools in Louisiana is being challenged on the grounds that it conflicts with desegregation orders.
In November, a U.S. District Judge agreed with the Tangipahoa Parish school district that diverting public funds to private schools hampered federal mandates of a 47-year-old desegregation order.
Court documents show that 50 Tangipahoa students are in the voucher program at a cost of more than $250,000 in state and local funds.
Alabama’s law would divert money from the already financially-strapped Education Trust Fund.
Supporters of the law estimate the amount to be between $60 million and $70 million annually, while the Alabama Education Association, which opposes the law, said the number is closer to $250 million.
Elliott lamented that education officials weren’t consulted about the tax-credit portion of the law before it was passed by lawmakers.
“This law could have been easily vetted with the DOE, and these questions could have been answered,” he said. “This is a sloppy piece of legislation.”