DECATUR, Ala. — Thousands of children and their families are using the Alabama Accountability Act to attend private schools, but only a few dozen appear to have attended the state’s worst public schools as defined by the act.

The state program provides private school scholarships to help low-income students attend private schools. When lawmakers started the program in 2013, it was touted as a way to help students escape schools with chronically low test scores.

The Decatur Daily reports ( that in the past three fiscal years, 39 students withdrew from failing schools to attend private schools with the Alabama Accountability Act, according to the Alabama State Department of Education. Most of the thousands of low-income students who receive tax-dollar supported scholarships to attend private schools didn’t come from failing schools.

Supporters of the program say that it is OK, because the program is still benefiting low-income families.

“It gives them the same sorts of choices that middle-income families have, which in my opinion is a good thing,” said Sen. Dick Brewbaker, R-Pike Road, who has been a proponent of the act since its passage in 2013.

When it was passed, the act was said to be a mechanism for helping low-income students get out of low-performing public schools. It gives a tax credit of roughly $3,500 to help students transfer out of failing schools. There also is a separate $30 million-per-year scholarship fund. Businesses and individuals who donate to the fund receive income tax credits — money that would otherwise go to the state education budget.

To qualify for a scholarship, first-time recipients must meet an income requirement that puts them at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level. That equals to an annual household income of about $44,123 for a family of four.

While 140 parents received a tax credit in 2015 to transfer from a failing school to a private school, most had children who weren’t enrolled in the low-performing public school they were zoned for, according to the department of education. They may have been new to the area or had a child just entering kindergarten.

“The law has changed significantly from where it started,” Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, said Wednesday. “And where it started was poor children in chronically failing — emphasis on chronically — schools.”

Orr originally supported the bill in 2013, but later voted against a revision because of changes that were made, including allowing students from non-failing schools to receive scholarships.

“In my mind, it was always about a choice — families having a choice about the best education for their children,” Terri Collins, R-Decatur, said. “This is providing a choice that they wouldn’t have otherwise.”

There are 76 schools on the failing list. Eighteen of them are in the Birmingham system, and 12 are in the Montgomery system.

Gov. Robert Bentley signed the law in 2013, but later said the focus should be on getting children out of failing schools.

“If this act is not helping students in failing schools to attend non-failing schools, then we need to re-look at this, because the purpose of the act is not being fulfilled,” Bentley said Wednesday.

Former Decatur Superintendent Ed Nichols told the newspaper ( that school leaders told lawmakers in 2013 that not a lot of kids would leave failing schools.

“If they’re in a poverty situation, the tax credit is great, but they may not have the money up front (for tuition), and transportation may be a challenge,” he said. Private schools don’t have to provide transportation. And, he said, some people just didn’t believe the “failing” label.

“We had a lot of people who stayed in the middle school and felt their child was getting a great education and the label placed on them wasn’t accurate,” Nichols said.

Information from: The Decatur Daily,