MONTGOMERY — The Southern Poverty Law Center filed a federal lawsuit Monday contending that low-income students attending failing public schools are being hurt by a new state law that provides tax credits to families that transfer their children to private schools.

Law Center President Richard Cohen said the new Alabama Accountability Act will take millions away from public schools and will make the failing schools worse than they are now. He said the law was promoted by Republican Gov. Robert Bentley as giving students a way out of failing schools.

“It's a lie. Our clients do not have a way out of the failing schools that they are in,” he said.

Bentley said the Alabama Accountability Act is designed to help all public schools. He said one portion of the law gives schools flexibility in complying with state education laws so they can customize their schools to meet the needs of their students. “All students can benefit from the flexibility portion of the Accountability Act, and it's important that we preserve and build on this progress,” he said in a statement.

The author of the tax credit portion of the law, Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, was not immediately available for comment, according to his spokesman.

The Montgomery-based law center sued on the opening day of classes for most public schools in Alabama. The suit focuses on a part of the law that allows families with children in Alabama's 78 failing public schools to move them to a non-failing public school or to a private school that participates in the program. They can get a state tax credit of about $3,500 annually to help cover private school costs.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of eight plaintiffs who say that they can't afford to go to private schools and that the non-failing public schools are not accessible. The lawsuit raises equal protection issues.

One of the eight plaintiffs, Mariah Russaw, said she couldn't afford the transportation costs even if her 12-year-old grandson, J.R., could leave Barbour County Junior High School in Clayton. All junior highs in the Barbour County school system are on the failing list. The nearest non-failing public school is 19 miles away in Pike County. The nearest private school is about 30 miles away, but it is not participating in the program.

The 62-year-old grandmother said it wouldn't matter if the private school were participating. “I cannot afford to transport him to another school,” she said.

Russaw has Bell's Palsy and no steady source of income. She is the guardian for her grandson because his mother has multiple sclerosis.

As of Monday, 56 private schools were accepting students through the Alabama Accountability Act.

At the 78 failing public schools, most of the students are poor enough to receive free or reduced-priced lunches, and nearly 40 percent of the schools are located in low-income counties stretched across central Alabama in a region known as the “Black Belt,” the law center said.

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