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Alabama judge blocks governor from signing school choice bill

Circuit Court Judge Charles Price talks with attorneys in his courtroom in Montgomery, Ala., Wednesday, March 6, 2013.AP

An Alabama judge has blocked the signing of a hotly contested education bill that has divided the state Legislature. Democrats are heralding the decision as a victory but state GOP leaders say the bill was passed fair and square and say the judicial branch needs to butt out of the legislative process.

Circuit Judge Charles Price scheduled a hearing for mid-March on the issue and barred state lawmakers from sending the bill to the governor for his signature before the hearing. Gov. Robert Bentley had said he would sign the bill. 

The bill would give parents zoned for “failing” schools an income tax credit to help pay for tuition at a private school or other public school. But the Alabama Education Association filed a lawsuit Monday night seeking to stop it. The teachers union group argues that the Republican majority bypassed state rules when the tax credit program was tacked on the bill in a conference committee -- with little discussion or debate -- and pushed through the legislature. 

Senate Pro Tem Del Marsh called the ruling “judicial activism at its worst” and vowed to take the matter to the state Supreme Court in order to lift the injunction.

“These stalling tactics are a sham by the same special interest elite that have held our state back for far too long,” he said in a statement, adding that there had been no violation of the Open Meetings Act. 

Democrat Sen. Quinton Ross had a different take.

“The judge stood for the integrity of the Legislature and the legislative process,” he said.

When Alabama’s General Assembly session began on Feb. 5, nearly every education group in the state lined up behind the governor and Republican legislative leaders to endorse the plan that would give city and county school boards more flexibility in complying with the state education laws. The AEA and Democratic lawmakers opposed the bill citing concerns over teacher tenure laws.

The House and Senate then went on to pass different versions of the bill, prompting the formation of a GOP-dominated conference committee to come up with a compromise. The committee used its time to triple the bill’s size by adding tax credits for parents who move their children from failing public school to another public, private or parochial school.

Democrats claimed they were hoodwinked by Republicans who used a last-minute bait-and-switch tactic to push their plan through.

The House approved the bill 51-26 and the Senate 22-11 along party lines.

Alabama’s governor told reporters he didn’t talk with state school superintendents about retooling the legislation at the last minute because they would have tried to kill it.

“Take away all of this trust stuff. Take away all of these folks that are upset. I don’t care. Let me tell you what I care about. I care about those children who are failing in those schools and they have no way out,” Bentley said Friday.

House Speaker Mike Hubbard called the ruling “a ridiculous unconstitutional overreach” and a “patently political ruling.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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