Ala. Court Allows Two Groups To Join School-Finance Case

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The plodding pace of court-ordered education reform in Alabama may have just gotten slower.

The Alabama Supreme Court ruled this month that two more groups of plaintiffs will join the state's long-running school-funding case.

One of the plaintiff groups--in an immediate assertion of its new status--last week asked the lower-court judge who is overseeing school reform to set aside all orders he has issued about how the state is to fix its impoverished and inadequate schools.

In effect, that would mean scrapping the remedy plan forged between longstanding plaintiffs and state officials and approved by Judge Eugene W. Reese of the Montgomery County circuit court in 1993. That order included performance standards for students and educators, a core academic curriculum for secondary students, and no academic tracking.

The supreme court ruling this month said it did not affect Judge Reese's ruling of March 31, 1993, which held that the unequal wealth of the state's schools and the inequitable educational opportunities they offer violate the state constitution.

The plaintiff group--known as the Joyce Pinto, et al., plaintiff-intervenors--also asked Judge Reese to allow state lawmakers time to pass remedial legislation.

Failing that, the group asked the judge to set a trial date for the presentation of evidence on how to correct the failings of the state's schools. Ms. Pinto is a Jefferson County parent and substitute teacher.

The state legislature, which will be in session until July 31, failed twice last year to pass education-reform proposals backed by then-Gov. James E. Folsom Jr.

Practical Effect Unclear

Some observers worried last week that legislators might misinterpret the state high court's decision to allow new plaintiffs as an opportunity to further delay action on school-funding reform.

But it remained unclear last week what the practical impact of the ruling would be and how Judge Reese might interpret it.

At the very least, lawyers in the case agreed, Judge Reese would have to hold a hearing to allow the new plaintiffs to offer their views.

But C.C. (Bo) Torbert, who represents some of the longstanding plaintiffs in the case against the state, said the judge should not abandon his remedy order.

The current Governor, Fob James Jr., who tried unsuccessfully earlier this year to have the state high court throw out Judge Reese's orders, has formally asked the judge to recuse himself from the case because he has made public statements about it.

Worries About O.B.E.

The incorporation of the Pinto group into the case promises to be less than smooth.

The group has philosophical disagreements with the approach that Judge Reese has approved for improving the state's schools. In a motion filed last week, the group said Judge Reese's remedy order contained "experimental, social-engineering, counterproductive education methodology."

Thomas F. Parker 4th, a lawyer representing the Pinto-group plaintiffs, said his clients were concerned about "outcomes-based education."

The high court's action also threw into question work the state school board was to do last week to comply with the remedy order.

The board was to have been working to meet a July 15 deadline set by Judge Reese. But Denise B. Azar, an associate counsel for the state education department, said that she did not think there was a way to settle the intervenor matters by then.

Meanwhile, the legislature is considering Governor James's education-funding and -reform plan. Last week, the House Ways and Means Committee approved the legislative package. There was a chance that the House would begin floor debate on it last week.

But Mr. Torbert said he put legislators on "kind notice" that the Governor's plan--which would give underfunded schools little new money--"would not pass constitutional muster."

In addition, the House committee approved a perennial offering from Rep. Nelson R. Starkey Jr. to allow voters to decide whether to amend the state constitution to require school districts to levy at least 20 mills of property tax. Such a law would affect 111 of the state's 127 school systems.

'Supplementary Ideas'

The high court's ruling brought several more types of Alabama residents into the debate on how the state goes about complying with Judge Reese's court order.

The Pinto group represents gifted students, whose interests it says are left out of the remedy order, as well as a general class of students and the parents of public school students.

A second group, led by Birmingham architect Walter Anderton, represents the state's taxpayers.

The court rejected a third petition to intervene from Robin Swift, a former state finance director.

Until now, the plaintiffs in the case against the state have been impoverished school districts, schoolchildren and parents from such districts, and students with disabilities.

Judge Reese earlier had declined to add the two new groups to the case, but the groups succeeded in their appeal to the supreme court.

The high court ruled that allowing the new plaintiffs into the case "would much more adequately serve their interests, as well as those of all Alabama citizens in this extraordinary litigation, than would the present parties."

The court said the goal of fixing the education system "cannot be achieved without significantly impacting--directly or indirectly--virtually every Alabama citizen for years to come."

The court continued: "It is difficult to understand, therefore, how, in this ongoing process, the supplementary ideas and viewpoints presented by Pinto and Anderton would impede the litigation's laudable goals or prejudice the present parties' interests."

Mr. Parker said that given the court's action, other groups, such as affluent school districts that had sought unsuccessfully to intervene in the case before, may try again.

Vol. 14, Issue 36

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