A little-noted legal challenge filed earlier this month in Alabama could have far-reaching effects on the Republican-led “school choice” drive that uses tax dollars to help students leave low-performing schools.

The federal lawsuit, filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center, charges that Alabama’s new “Accountability Act” granting tax credits to those moving from a “failing” school violates the Reconstruction-era 14th Amendment, which guarantees equal protection under the law. The Alabama school choice law, the SPLC argues, in effect creates two classes of citizens: those with the resources to move their children to other schools, and those who do not — primarily the rural poor, who in Alabama are disproportionately African-American.

“When the Act was passed, state officials promised it would benefit students regardless of their family income or where they lived,” SPLC President Richard Cohen said last week in announcing the legal challenge (the legal complaint is available here). “The reality is that thousands of children in Alabama’s Black Belt, most of them African Americans below the poverty line, are trapped in failing schools and cannot take advantage of the Act.”

Josh Cunningham, an education analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures, told NPR that the legal challenge, if successful, “could have a tremendous impact because most of these programs are based on low-income students and students in failing schools.”

Cunningham said the campaigns in Republican-controlled legislatures began in 2010 and have accelerated, with 13 states adding or expanding such laws this year alone. Overall, he says, 21 states and the District of Columbia have adopted similar laws and policies.

But in Alabama, the policy leaves behind the rural poor, the SPLC says.

“The problem with the act is that it creates two classes of students: one group of students who can escape failing schools and another group of students who cannot by virtue of their poverty or where they happen to live,” Cohen said. Most affected: the rural poor, who face fewer education options and often insurmountable transportation and financial troubles. The net effect, Cohen argued, is that the Accountability Act leaves those students behind.

The Republican speaker of Alabama’s House of Representatives, Mike Hubbard, defended the law and condemned the SPLC for filing a “misguided, left-wing lawsuit,” according to AL.com.

“The Southern Poverty Law Center is attempting to slam the door on these options for the very students the Accountability Act is intended to help,” Hubbard said. “Misguided, left-wing lawsuits like this provide proof that the Southern Poverty Law Center is nothing more than the ACLU with a southern accent.”

So fighting for civil liberties in Alabama is unacceptable, Hubbard seems to be saying, while economic and racial segregation are OK.

—Posted by Scott Martelle.

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