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Curtain Goes Up on Proposal to Overhaul Alabama Schools

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The plaintiffs and defendants in Alabama's educational-equity lawsuit have filed a court-ordered joint proposal that could require up to $1 billion in additional spending a year to address inequities and inadequacies in the state school system.

Supporters said the wide array of reforms in the package--including equalized funding, academic rigor, accountability, and better buildings, buses, and books--would put Alabama in the forefront of systemic school improvement.

"I believe through this proposed court order and remedy plan ... Alabama leadership has the best opportunity we've had in decades to do what is right for all the children of this state,'' said Superintendent of Education Wayne Teague.

If the plan's broad scope remains intact, "Alabama will become the standard-bearer of comprehensive reform efforts,'' said David W. Hornbeck, a prominent education-reform consultant who has worked with Alabama and 20 other states.

The litigants' plan, filed Oct. 1, and an accompanying report by a state task force released last week seek to answer a litany of shortcomings found by Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Eugene W. Reese in his April 1 ruling. That decision found Alabama's education system unconstitutional both because of a gap in funding between rich and poor districts and because schools over all failed to provide students with needed skills.

A hearing before Judge Reese on the remedy plan is slated for next week. If he approves a remedy order soon, Gov. James E. Folsom Jr. is expected to call a special session of the legislature later this fall.

Despite the agreement between the state officials who are the defendants in the case and the school districts and advocacy groups that are the plaintiffs, however, the remedy plan could run into problems in the legislature. Paying for the changes would require politically risky changes in the state tax system, and the education community is not solidly behind the proposal.

Three-Tiered Funding

The task force's report, developed during four months of negotiations between educators, business leaders, and lawmakers, contains more detailed reform proposals for use by the legislature. (See Education Week, Sept. 29, 1993.)

Developed in coordination with the legal remedy, the report incorporates 50 recommendations that often go beyond the language of the remedy. For example, the report calls for denying tenure to new principals and would mandate school-based decisionmaking, while the remedy plan leaves it optional.

The task force also included a proposal for a three-tiered system for equalizing school funding that is similar to reform plans enacted in Kentucky and Texas.

The remedy order was influenced by reform efforts in Kentucky, South Carolina, and Washington State, said Wayne Flynt, an Auburn University history professor who was the court-appointed mediator for the litigants.

Estimates of the cost of the reforms stand at $507 million in the first year and $942 million a year in continuing costs after the fifth year.

The litigants' proposed remedy order sets learning goals for students and performance standards for both students and teachers, creates a core curriculum for secondary students, holds schools accountable for performance through rewards and penalties, and calls for more staff development and a study on teacher pay.

In addition, the plan calls for schools to be involved in developing strategies to identify and provide needed health and social services. It includes a mandate that eligible schools provide school breakfasts.

Illustrating the basic problems that beset many Alabama schools, the proposed remedy states specifically that schools shall provide an adequate supply of soap, paper towels, and toilet paper.

More Money for Greater Needs

The financing of the improved education system, according to the remedy proposal, would be implemented through a foundation-aid program put into place within six years. It would require a minimum local tax effort that would be equalized across districts by the state.

The plan leaves to state officials the task of determining the level of funding needed to provide an adequate education and insuring that every school has that amount.

To fund the changes, significant tax reform is expected to be needed. Currently, for example, districts now must get permission from the legislature to hold a referendum on property-tax hikes.

The task force's report provides additional information on the new funding system. It suggests that the funding formula direct more money to children with greater needs, using the number of students--rather than teachers--as the unit of allocation and weighting the pupil count to reflect the presence of students with special needs.

Beyond the foundation aid, districts could make additional local tax effort to meet needs not identified by the state and have access to an equalizing pool of funds of up to $10 million a year.

Localities could continue to raise tax revenue above that level, but without any help from the state.

School Board Concerns

Although a coaltion of civil-rights leaders and others last week voiced support for the remedy order, it has drawn criticism from other quarters.

At a meeting the night before the remedy plan was filed with the court, the state board of education endorsed the plan 8 to 1, but not before lengthy debate and the adoption on a 5-to-4 vote of a slate of five objections to the plan.

One of the concerns was that the plan went too far in the expansion of social services in the schools. Critics also questioned the requirements for a school-breakfast program and for school-based decisionmaking.

The Alabama Association of School Boards plans to submit a formal statement of concern to Judge Reese on the latter two issues.

Tazewell Shepard, the state board member who introduced the motion containing the objections, said the plan did not take into account the possibility that some of the mandated programs might not work and would need to be changed in the future.

"Once you get ... a mandate and a court order,'' Mr. Shepard said, "it may be with you for a generation.''

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