“This is a touchy situation for a lot of folks,” said Smith, principal of Trinity Christian Academy in Oxford. “For us, it was an opportunity.”
Trinity Christian, a church-affiliated private school in Oxford, was among the seven schools that qualified that week for tax credits under the Alabama Accountability Act, the new law that grants parents a tax credit of around $3,500 per year if they pull their children out of “failing” public schools and enroll them in private schools.
Passed in a late-night vote in February, the Accountability Act quickly became the most intensely debated bill of the 2013 legislative session. Proponents touted it as a groundbreaking bill that would offer a choice to students stuck in bad schools. Critics said it was an attempt to funnel tens of millions of dollars away from public schools and give them to private institutions.
So far, neither prediction has come true. Many private schools charge more than the $3,500 per year available with the tax credits. Statewide private school organizations have expressed skepticism of the tax credits and the additional scholarships the law established, saying participation would require additional paperwork and cost them their independence from state school officials.
But a few school leaders, like Smith, concluded the benefits were worth the risk.
“If it's a chance for even a few students to get a biblical education, that's good,” Smith said.
Located on the campus of Trinity Baptist Church, Trinity Christian has exactly 100 students, Smith said. The school uses the A-Beka curriculum, a course of study designed at a Christian college and widely used by homeschoolers and Christian schools. The school's tuition is about $4,000 per year, close to the $3,500 available through the tax credit.
The school is less than a half-hour's drive from two schools on the failing list – Anniston Middle School and Zora Ellis Junior High in Talladega. Smith said he hasn't enrolled any students under the Accountability Act yet, though he's had a few inquiries from Talladega.
Attempts to reach Talladega City Schools superintendent Douglas Campbell were unsuccessful Tuesday.
Trinity could handle many more students, he said. The school once had a student body of between 250 and 300 students, he noted.
Jim Childers, headmaster of Chambers Academy in Lafayette, said he's not sure why other private schools have rejected the idea of participating in the tax credit program.
"I can't see a down side," Childers said.
Chambers Academy is a school of about 150 students in mostly rural Chambers County, with an annual tuition of roughly $4,800. The school's website says the curriculum addresses the “spiritual” needs of students, but Childers says it's not a church-affiliated school.
"We're not a Christian school," he said. "We open the day with prayer and the pledge of allegiance, and due to our small class size, our teachers are able to get more involved with the students' needs. It's like a family."
Childers said it only made sense to qualify for the tax credits. The school is near three public schools – two in the Chambers County system, one in Lanett – that are on the failing schools list. Even so, Childers said he wouldn't be willing to double his enrollment, or come close to doing so.
"We don't want 150 more students," he said. "It would change the nature of the school."
State Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said he's not surprised that so few schools have qualified for the tax credits so far. The list of failing schools was announced in mid-summer, he noted, giving schools little time to adapt.
"I really believe it will be next year before it will be fully implemented," he said.
When more schools and teachers understand how the Accountability Act works, Marsh said, more schools will try to qualify for the program. Marsh formed a nonprofit group earlier this year to promote the act, and he said he's working with other nonprofits to publicize the new law over the next year.
“I'm excited,” he said. “I knew it was going to take time to get started.”
The Alabama Legislature set aside $40 million in the 2014 education budget to offset tax credits under the Accountability Act. Marsh acknowledged Tuesday that the cost for the next school year won't come near that number. He said the set-aside would likely be rolled over to pay for tax credits in the 2015 budget year.
"The bottom line is that it's not going to cost nearly as much as some people said it would," he said.
Shortly after the passage of the Accountability Act, critics of the new law released estimates that put the cost of the act anywhere between $50 million and $367 million per year. Unlike most bills, the act was passed without a "fiscal impact statement" estimating the bill's total cost. Debate about the interpretation of the act led lawmakers to pass a major revision to the bill just a few months after the original version passed.
The heated debate over the law has at least one supporter skeptical that the tax credits will stay in place forever.
"We'll try it for as long as it lasts," Childers said.
Capitol & statewide correspondent Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.
Schools participating in tax credit program:
The Country Day School Madison
Resurrection Catholic School Montgomery
The Capitol School Tuscaloosa
Chambers Academy Lafayette
Holy Spirit Catholic School Tuscaloosa
Ellwood Christian Academy Selma
Trinity Christian Academy Oxford