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Ala. Judge Strikes Down Finance System, Cites Lack of Money

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In a wholesale indictment of elementary and secondary education in Alabama, a state judge has declared the state school system unconstitutional because it fails to provide children with "equitable and adequate'' educational opportunities.

Insufficient money for schools lies at the heart of Alabama's education woes, Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Eugene W. Reese said in an opinion handed down April 1.

"[T]he court finds that the significant disparities in school funding in Alabama are reflected in meaningful disparities in educational opportunities available to Alabama schoolchildren,'' he wrote.

Alabama is the fourth state this year to have its school-funding system declared unconstitutional by a court at some level, following Missouri, North Dakota, and Tennessee.

In response to claims from disabled plaintiffs, Judge Reese also found that the current system violates state law by failing to provide "appropriate instruction and special services'' to handicapped students.

The opinion consolidated a lawsuit brought in 1990 by the Alabama Coalition for Equity, a group of 25 low-wealth school districts, with a class-action suit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of all state schoolchildren.

In his 125-page ruling, Judge Reese handed the plaintiffs a resounding victory by siding with them on point after point.

Testimony on the differences in educational conditions and resources between wealthier and poorer systems, Judge Reese wrote, was "graphic and troubling.''

Experts detailed miserable restroom facilities, portable classrooms with holes in the floor, encyclopedias dating to 1975, unsafe buses, and schools unable to offer the advanced courses that will be required for admission to the University of Alabama in 1995.

Not only do Alabama schools fail to measure up to the standards or spending of other states, the judge said, but they also "fall far short'' of the educational standards the state has set for itself for dropout rates and other indicators.

The ruling is a "landmark'' decision, according to Helen Hershkoff, the associate legal director of the A.C.L.U.

'Start From Ground Zero'

Observers predicted the court order would force the legislature to improve the education system through increased funding.

"I think this provides the framework for our beginning to extricate ourselves from the longstanding state policy of indifference to education,'' said Superintendent DeWayne Key of the Lawrence County school system, who initiated the lawsuit.

"The judge doesn't say they have an entire system that's invalid, but the effect of what he's said here is they have to start from ground zero in their funding,'' said Kern Alexander, an education professor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, who testified on behalf of the plaintiff districts.

Mr. Alexander said not only is Alabama poor--its wealthiest district spends less than the national average per pupil--but it also puts forth little funding effort for the schools.

In 1990, the national average for state and local revenue for public schools was $42 per $1,000 of personal income, according to Mr. Alexander. In Alabama, the figure was $33 per $1,000.

Mr. Alexander also said the ruling made clear that Judge Reese "doesn't buy this argument that money doesn't make a difference.''

Because virtually every state confronted with a school-finance lawsuit uses that defense, Mr. Alexander noted, Judge Reese's ruling "has very important national implications.''

Another significant aspect of the Alabama case is that it is one of the few nationwide to target both equity, or the funding disparities between rich and poor districts, and the issue of adequacy--that is, the question of whether state schools can provide children with the skills they need to be successful in life. (See Education Week, June 17, 1992.)

Cost Put at $1 Billion

The problems of Alabama schools have been so widely recognized that most of the defendants originally named in the lawsuits, including State Superintendent of Education Wayne Teague, ended up switching sides to join the plaintiffs.

Gov. Guy Hunt, one of the remaining defendants, announced last week that he would not appeal the ruling, which he said "represents an opportunity to fundamentally change Alabama's public school system for the better and to restore public confidence in the schools.''

Mr. Hunt said last week that he would appoint a task force to recommend ways to improve school equity, funding, and accountability.

A spokesman for the Republican Governor indicated, however, that Mr. Hunt might appeal the remedy phase of the order, especially if it requires large tax increases without assurances that educators will be held more accountable. Early estimates have put the cost of an education overhaul at $1 billion.

"We don't want to give more money to a system that's not already working,'' said Donald J. Claxton, a spokesman for the Governor.

During the trial, Governor Hunt defended the current system's use of local property-tax funding as promoting local control. But that interest is not a valid reason "for school funding and educational opportunity to depend upon the happenstance of local wealth and of students' places of residence,'' Judge Reese wrote.

Prescription for Remedy

The remedy phase of the court action is to begin at a June 9 conference, when Judge Reese said he would address procedures and a timetable.

The timing of any legislative action is in question, since the conference will occur after the close of the legislative session in mid-May.

To have the legislature address the issue before 1994, Mr. Hunt would have to call a special session, a move on which he remains undecided.

Judge Reese set out a clear path for legislative action.

In addition to declaring the school system unconstitutional because of its shortcomings, the ruling also laid out a detailed prescription for "adequate educational opportunities.''

At the very least, he wrote, students must have the opportunity to attain sufficient skills to function in Alabama and at national and international levels in such areas as oral and written communication; mathematics and science; economics, history, and politics; and the arts.

Judge Reese said the state constitution mandates "a system of public schools that is generous and broad-based in its provision of educational opportunity and that meets evolving standards of educational adequacy.''

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