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Ala. Judge Sets Deadlines for Developing Finance, Reform Plan

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An Alabama judge has given state officials six months to create a system for equitably and adequately funding public schools, and another six months to implement that system.

The judge's order gives the state more time to put into place other reforms, however, such as 18 months for a plan for secondary school reform and two years for new graduation and promotion requirements.

The order issued last month by Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Eugene W. Reese closely parallels the proposed remedy earlier submitted to him by the plaintiffs and defendants in the state's educational-equity lawsuit. (See Education Week, Oct. 13, 1993.)

While criticized by the head of the Alabama Association of School Boards for its provisions on school-based decisionmaking, the judge's order was hailed by others.

"I am gratified with Judge Reese's speedy action on the issue and that he agrees that Alabama's schoolchildren cannot wait any longer for an opportunity at getting an excellent education,'' Gov. James E. Folsom Jr. said in a statement.

"It is now our responsibility,'' the Governor added, "to provide for our children the best possible schools we can afford.''

Mr. Folsom is expected to call a special legislative session this year, in which lawmakers will grapple with the politically sensitive issue of changing the state tax system to pay for the reforms--even as they face re-election next year.

Estimates for the cost of the reforms stand at $507 million in the first year, rising to $942 million a year after the fifth year.

A Litany of Shortcomings

The order is an attempt to rectify a litany of shortcomings found by Judge Reese in his April court decision declaring the state's education system unconstitutional both because of gaps in per-pupil funding between districts and because schools over all failed to provide students with needed skills.

Under Judge Reese's order, sufficient funding to provide an adequate education is to be achieved through a foundation program phased in over a period of no more than six years.

That foundation program must require a "uniform local tax effort'' equalized by the state, the judge declared, "so that every schoolchild shall receive an adequately funded educational opportunity.''

Other reforms called for under Judge Reese's order included performance standards for students and educators, a core academic curriculum for secondary students, and abandonment of academic tracking.

The state's education system must also contain methods for insuring accountability, such as rewards, assistance, and penalties tied to student success, the judge ordered.

In its provisions on school-based decisionmaking, the order goes beyond the litigants' proposal by directing that principals, teachers, and parents "have significant input into the selection of faculty and staff and budgetary decisions.''

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