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Ala. Equity CaseTraps Students in Political Undertow

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Butler, Ala.

Ethel Dasis looks perplexed as a puff of steam rises from a pot of broccoli. As she orchestrates the final touches of the night's supper, she tries to recall how old her daughter was when she testified in court in Montgomery, the state capital.

"Was Andrea going to be a junior or a sophomore?" she asks her husband, Jack, who is sitting at the kitchen table. It is hard to remember.

Andrea is 18 now. She is out of school and no longer lives at home.

Along with several other Alabama schoolchildren, she was called to Montgomery to render a picture of Alabama's schools. Their words, along with the opinions of experts and mountains of statistics, compelled a state judge to find Alabama's system of funding its schools unconstitutional.

The laundry list of problems was "graphic and troubling," Circuit Court Judge Eugene W. Reese wrote in his stern 125-page decision in 1993.

But so far, the case has served only to make the political waters in Montgomery muddier. More than two years after Judge Reese ordered changes, legislators have done nothing to raise more money for schools and little to allocate it more evenly among poorer and wealthier communities.

Here in Butler, and in poor school districts across the state, the landmark case proved to be no landmark at all. It was barely a bump in the road.

As state officials maneuver, seeking more comfortable political ground where they can deal with the thorny school-finance issue, more than 34,000 children graduate from Alabama's condemned school system each year.

Besstina Lyles, another girl from Butler, had just finished 6th grade when she took the witness stand in 1992. She will start the 10th grade this fall, and likely will join Andrea Dasis as a graduate before much changes.

"A lot of people are despairing because of the procrastination," said Besstina's mother, Alice Lyles, a nutrition assistant who works for the local welfare office. "My children will go to college and they will not be as advanced as the others. And unless things change, the lack of education will be the death of this county."

"We knew this might take a long time, but it seems like it has been so long."

Jack Dasis agrees. "I told my daughter, 'You will not see the improvements,"' said the New York City transplant, who works at a paper mill. "There was no motive for us to see our kids get anything out of this. But I told her that one day, if something changes, she could look back and know she had something to do with it."

A Familiar Pattern

As states in every part of the country have struggled with a wave of lawsuits aimed at making their school-finance programs more fair, the cases have followed a familiar pattern.

Often they begin with gripping descriptions of the conditions children in poor school districts must endure: old and decrepit buildings, inexperienced teachers, minimal course offerings, scant supplies.

But, once a judge forces the state to act, it is rare that lawmakers have worried that the clock is ticking for deprived students in poor districts.

"Schoolchildren are not on the minds of a lot of people, because what the legislature is dealing with is a decision by another branch of government that requires it to do something that usually involves money," said John Augenblick, a Denver-based school-finance consultant.

"It's not as if most of the legislators have heard the testimony or seen the pictures brought out in the lawsuit," he said. "They see a decision that is in black and white and seems very formal."

But while lawmakers in many states have taken time to consider their options apart from the plight of poor schools, perhaps nowhere have the shortcomings of schools been as dramatically documented or the inaction of lawmakers been so obvious as in Alabama.

"Nobody hears a clock ticking, because historically we've never given a damn," said James G. Speake, a lawyer in Moulton, Ala., who has worked with the Alabama Coalition for Equity, a group of poor school districts that sued the state in 1990. "The legislature has never cared about public education. We sacrifice our children--our greatest asset--and to say otherwise is a big lie."

To date, the result of the finance case has been a standoff in which school districts continue to scrape to get by and lawmakers fight off any attempts to raise new money.

Until last year, when a small slice of the state's school funds were set aside in an "equity pool," Alabama's system of paying for schools had not factored in the relative wealth of school districts since 1935.

Avoiding the Problem

In the decades in between, lawmakers doled out money based on head counts and often through legislative earmarking, which allowed leaders to tag state money for particular school districts. When the subject of across-the-board change has arisen, legislators have always found a way to discuss it without ever making it happen.

Shortly after Judge Reese's ruling, all the parties named in the case had agreed with the plaintiffs that the system needed change. But even with that backing, then-Gov. James E. Folsom Jr. could not push a plan through the legislature last year.

"It is unfortunate that in Alabama we've always been able to pay for a road or a prison, but we've never been able to pay for our children's education," the Governor said in opening the 1994 legislative session.

He called for $166 million a year in additional education money for five years, and a $1.3 billion bond issue to buy new school buildings, buses, and computers. More local money would also have been added by raising the state's minimum local property-tax rate.

But his plans were ultimately consumed by partisan bickering, and Mr. Folsom, a Democrat, lost in last November's election.

Last month, lawmakers passed a finance bill proposed by Gov. Fob James Jr., a Republican, that puts more money into the basic-aid grants the state gives to school districts by cutting specific-allocations programs like vocational education. But the bill contains no new money.

The lawmakers also passed an accountability bill that would allow the state to take over failing districts.

The Senate last week was debating a $150 million school-bond issue that would pay for repairing safety and health violations.

Critics are hardly cheering.

"The Governor says you can have a modern education without more revenue," said Mr. Speake. "But you can't diddle around with the books and achieve what this court order mandates. Not without new revenue."

"The Governor didn't do any of this to please the court," said Dick Brewbaker, Mr. James's education aide. "He was trying to distribute the money that's available in a more appropriate manner."

Allure of Low Taxes

Lawmakers' reluctance to take charge of the system--to require a greater local tax effort and spend the money needed to allow all the state's schools to meet Alabama's own minimum standards--promises that in poor districts, the tiresome routine of struggling to make ends meet will continue.

Butler, the Choctaw County seat, sits on the rural western edge of Alabama. Beneath the water tower, where a yellow "smiley face"sd: let's do like this.gc is framed with the message "Have a Good Day," a hand-painted sign offers hot boiled peanuts for 99 cents a pound.

Much of the surrounding land has been scoured of its timber. Some is cleared and farmed.

The predominantly black county's schools provide their 3,000 students with what they can from a weak tax base and scant voter support.

Unpatrolled by the state, the property-tax rate hovers so low that the Dasis family pays less than $150 a year in taxes on its sprawling ranch house in a well-kept neighborhood. Voters are reluctant to approve more.

In communities like Butler, the turmoil surrounding fair and adequate school funding is at once obvious and elusive. Racial division still erodes support for public schools, as does mutual contempt between cities and rural areas.

The allure of low taxes sets poor districts back even further. And politicians and others are quick to blame school administrators for districts' disappointing achievement and poor conditions.

Many observers see the same forces of division and neglect that, in earlier decades, delayed desegregation and other civil-rights advances in the state.

'Prejudice Is a Problem'

Many white residents of Butler send their children to private academies. And racial tensions are evident when the issue of putting more money into schools is raised in Choctaw County and at the state level.

"Prejudice is a lot of the problem," said Mr. Dasis, who is white, He said the signs of neglect that his daughter and others told of in court are obvious.

He once watched a principal position a 55-gallon drum under a leak in a classroom ceiling.

The family asked to have its youngest son, Danny, who has Down syndrome, placed in the regular 1st-grade class when he started school. The only other option was a special-education class for all the students in grades K-8.

The couple's children have received a grounding in basic subjects, but few "frills" like art or music or a full array of extracurricular activities.

"Any other place we've ever been, P.T.A.. money went to buy goodies," Mr. Dasis said. "Here, it goes to buy things like desks and computers."

In Conecuh County in southern Alabama, a district mentioned in court as one of the state's most needy, administrators have made cuts since the 1993 ruling.

"As far as changes due to the equity lawsuit, there are none," said Ronnie Brogden, the superintendent of the 2,500-student district.

In the county's high schools, teachers who are expected to instruct 150 students a day instead teach 200. The central-office travel budget is gutted.

Maintenance is being put off until repairs can no longer wait. And the district now uses its own employees to investigate federal civil-rights complaints to save money on lawyers.

Mr. Brogden is not only distressed in his role as a district official. He worries about what it means for his own two children.

"It bothers me," he said. "But you just do the best you can with what you've got, and realize that not everybody can drive a Cadillac."

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