The Supreme Court has established that well-designed school choice programs are constitutional at the federal level. However, this has not stopped school choice opponents in Alabama from asking a federal court to block the state’s new law that gives tax breaks to families who transfer from a failing public school to a non-failing public or private school to help offset tuition and transportation costs.
The challenge is based on the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. The plaintiffs argue that poor and rural students are unable to benefit from the law and are thus trapped in failing schools.
The claim that it will be difficult for poor and rural students to benefit from the program has merit. Many rural families live too far from a good public or private school, and the $3,500 tax credit may not be enough to help some poor families afford private school tuition.
However, this is not a valid reason to strike down the law. With so many challenges to ensuring that all students are attending a quality school, it is impossible for one solution to help all students. That should not mean that students who can benefit from this law should remain stuck in failing schools.
What it does mean is that policy makers need to find additional ways to help poor and rural students who may not be able to benefit from the current law. To help poor students, school choice programs should ensure that scholarship amounts are high enough to help the poorest students afford school options, such as including a sliding scale to provide the greatest help to those with the greatest need.
One way to help rural students is to provide high quality virtual learning. This would help students access classes they otherwise might not have access to, such as physics or foreign languages. Policy makers could also create charter schools that serve multiple counties. Pataula Charter Academy in southwest Georgia is a great example of this type of school.
Students and schools face different challenges that require a variety of solutions. While Alabama’s new school choice program might not help all students escape failing schools, it’s a good start.