Alabama students have a constitutional right to an adequate and equitable education. But don’t expect the state’s court system to make sure they get one.
That is the upshot of a recent ruling by the Alabama Supreme Court on a long- standing lawsuit brought by a coalition of poor school systems.
“Because the duty to fund Alabama’s public schools is a duty that—for over 125 years—the people of this state have rested squarely upon the shoulders of the legislature, it is the legislature, not the courts, from which any further redress should be sought,” the court declared in a 7-1 decision issued May 31.
Warren Craig Pouncey, the superintendent of the 2,400-student Crenshaw County school system, a party to the lawsuit, accused the court of avoiding its responsibility to take action.
“It’s going to mean that there will be a continued widening of the disparity of educational opportunity in this state,” he said. “Only those areas with taxing capacity can provide kids with the things they need to be competitive in this global economy.”
“The Alabama Supreme Court has in effect held that you’ve got an unconstitutional system, but the judges have no authority to order a remedy,” said C.C. “Bo” Torbert, who was the lead attorney when the lawsuit began but no longer is directly involved.
But Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor praised the decision.
“I am pleased that a substantial majority of the Supreme Court of Alabama today adopted the entire argument I made in this case,” he said in a statement. “This ruling is both conservative and proper.”
‘Separation of Powers’
In 1993, Montgomery Circuit Judge Gene Reese ruled that the state’s constitution requires schools to be adequately and equitably funded. The supreme court, asked by the legislature to offer an advisory opinion on the circuit court decision, affirmed the ruling later in 1993 and never reversed that position in later rulings related to the case. The circuit court has since been working with the state on a plan to ensure state public schools provide an adequate education to all students.
But with a new set of justices, the state supreme court decided to revisit the case this year. While last month’s decision did not overturn the 1993 finding on Alabama’s education system, the court made clear that it cannot compel action.
“In Alabama, separation of powers is not merely an implicit ‘doctrine’ but rather an express command; a command stated with a forcefulness rivaled by few, if any, similar provisions in constitutions of other sovereigns,” the court said.
Justice Douglas Johnstone, the court’s lone Democrat, wrote the only dissent. He argued that as the high court had not been asked to review the equity-funding lawsuit since 1998, the time limit had expired for the court to reconsider the lower court’s efforts to seek a remedy.
Joe Morton, Alabama’s deputy superintendent of education, said the ruling would make it harder to enact a plan the department has developed to ensure an adequate education for all Alabama students. That plan, if fully implemented, would cost an additional $1.6 billion per year, he said.
Tight fiscal times in Alabama have created a strain on public schools there. In fact, last school year, the state imposed across-the-board cuts on K-12 education. While no such cuts are expected this year, spending on K-12 education has remained about the same except for a 3 percent teacher pay raise approved this year. Total state spending on education in fiscal 2003 will be about $3 billion.
The state’s plan would not simply involve extra state money. “The [tax-generating] effort has to be raised in many locales, but once that’s done, we have to step in and finish the job,” Mr. Morton said. “There is an opportunity and a need for higher tax effort at the local level, but a very economically stagnant or poor county could raise its effort but still not have much new money, because there’s not much to tax.”
John G. Augenblick, a school finance expert in Denver, said that courts in many states have intervened to compel school finance changes.
“Most say, ‘We will not tell you what to do, but we will tell you to do something,’” Mr. Augenblick said. “Over the last 30 years, half the states in this country have modified the way they allocate money in part because they’ve been required to do that [by the courts].”
A version of this article appeared in the June 12, 2002 edition of Education Week as Alabama Court Refrains From Ordering Equity Remedy