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Entering the School-Finance Arena, A.C.L.U. Files Lawsuit in Alabama

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Extending its longstanding advocacy of school-desegregation efforts into the finance arena, the American Civil Liberties Union has taken aim at Alabama's system of funding education.

Other states may be the targets of similar challenges in the future, aclu officials indicate.

A class-action lawsuit filed in state court this month by the aclu's Alabama affiliate on behalf of students in four low-wealth school districts marks growing activity on the school-finance front for the national civil-rights organization.

The aclu already is involved in a Connecticut case challenging desegregation efforts in Hartford and the adequacy of education for minority and poor students--a central issue in most state school-finance lawsuits.

The group is also preparing to deliver to North Carolina lawmakers a report on that state's school-finance inequities, officials said.

Spending disparities between wealthy and poor school districts will become a chief focus of aclu affiliates in other states over the4next year, according to Helen Hershkoff, associate legal director of the national organization.

In part, Ms. Hershkoff noted, the new focus on school-finance issues reflects frustration with state reforms since the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark 1954 desegregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

"It's clear that 30 years after Brown, a quality education remains illusory for many children," Ms. Hershkoff said. "We want to find new remedies to try to secure for children a quality education."

Concerns over equity and desegregation are naturally connected, aclu officials argue, since both are covered by the 14th Amendment, which guarantees citizens equal protection under state laws.

"No child, because of religion or gender or race or the local condition of wealth, should be denied an adequate education," Ms. Hershkoff said. "State constitutions promise that, and we're interested in seeing that promise enforced."

In Alabama, however, efforts to use the courts to force school-finance reforms face a major obstacle, because the state amended its constitution following the Brown ruling to disavow responsibility for public education.

The aclu suit seeks to nullify the 1956 amendment and implement reforms. Its arguments for that outcome focus largely on the lack of services in the four poor districts, ranging from dilapidated buildings to poor staffing. The suit also attempts to show that substandard student performance in the districts is due to low funding levels.

Another complicating factor facing the suit is that a group of low-wealth districts in the state has already mounted its own legal challenge to the finance system.

Jim Speake, counsel for a group of about 22 low-wealth districts that filed suit last year, said that if the aclu challenge is consolidated with the earlier lawsuit, court action could be delayed. He said school officials with the Alabama Coalition for Equity have yet to determine how the new lawsuit complements their own.

"They have presented some issues that were not presented in our case," Mr. Speake said. "If they're on our side, we can use all the help we can get."

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