Alabama Is Back Where It Started
- Subject: Alabama Is Back Where It Started
- From: Peter Farruggio <pfarr@UCLINK4.BERKELEY.EDU>
- Date: Mon, 11 Mar 2002 08:47:43 -0800
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Savage inequalities. Printed in the New York Times.....
March 11, 2002
After 10 Long Years, Alabama Is Back Where It Started
By ADAM COHEN
LOWNDES COUNTY, Ala. -- There was a rule, back when I was an education
lawyer in Alabama, about visiting public schools: always go on a rainy day,
so you can see how badly the roofs leak. It was just like old times last
week when I dropped in on Russell Elementary, outside Hayneville, in the
middle of a heavy downpour. As I talked with a county official about how
little money he had to work with, we both dodged the puddle that was
rapidly forming in the hall outside the principal's office.
I was in Alabama to say goodbye ? to a school-funding lawsuit, of all
things. More than a decade ago, I had helped file it on behalf of a class
of poor children, mostly from schools in the Black Belt, the swath of rich
farmland that was once home to Alabama's large cotton plantations. The suit
maintained that under the State Constitution, children who lived in shotgun
shacks in Dallas County were entitled to as good an education as students
in the wealthiest Birmingham suburbs.
The first step in this kind of suit is collecting stories of educational
inadequacy, which, in the Black Belt, proved all too easy. One high school
student in Selma told us he was having trouble keeping up in physics
because his school could afford only four physics textbooks, and when he
wanted to do homework, he had to call around to see if anyone was done with
a book. A teacher in a Wilcox County elementary school led us to a
ramshackle library, with a single wall of shelves, where a book still being
read by students cheerfully predicted that "one day man will walk on the
The more we traveled the country roads of south-central Alabama, the
grimmer the tales became. Monroe County, home of Harper Lee, author of "To
Kill a Mockingbird," had two high schools. The main one in Monroeville was
far from opulent. But the second one, Monroe County Senior High School,
which served an isolated, all-black farming community, was so poor it did
not offer basic science and math classes. That meant, the principal
explained, that no matter how hard his students worked, they could not meet
the admissions requirements of the University of Alabama.
The worst situations verged on Southern Gothic. One first grade teacher,
asked what her biggest problem was, said fire ants regularly crawled
through the floorboards during naptime and bit the children. A mother in
Choctaw County, a rural district hard up against the Mississippi border,
told us her wheelchair-bound son's therapy required him to get out of the
chair at least once a day and crawl around. But the only room the school
had available had a concrete floor, which the school could not afford to
carpet. She had to organize a bake sale, she told us, to buy one.
At trial in Circuit Court in Montgomery, where our case on behalf of poor
students was combined with one by poor school districts, a team of
educational experts supplemented this anecdotal evidence with objective
studies. Alabama ranked 49th in the nation in spending on elementary and
secondary education, and the experts explained how this translated into
Alabama made the defense that states often do in these suits: that money
does not make the difference in school quality. It seems hard to believe.
(Try telling the Pentagon that money does not make a difference in waging a
war.) But an academic subspecialty has arisen, in part to defend against
this sort of case, arguing through regression analysis that spending levels
do not correlate significantly with academic achievement. Unfortunately for
the state defendants, the highly paid Northern academic they hired to study
Alabama bungled his numbers, and was discredited on the witness stand. The
state was also hurt when the governor's education adviser, whose job it was
to defend the status quo, appeared to be crying when she testified about
conditions in the worst schools.
Back in the 1950's, in an attempt to block desegregation, Alabama enacted
Amendment 111 to the State Constitution, removing the right to a public
education as a matter of law. The first step in bringing this suit was
getting the trial judge to rule that Amendment 111 itself violated the
equal protection clause of the United States Constitution, because it was
passed to deprive blacks of an equal education. Early in the case,
Amendment 111 was struck down. The trial court found that the Alabama
Constitution guaranteed children an adequate and equitable education, and
that the school system was failing to provide it. In the remedy phase, the
parties negotiated for months and hammered out a settlement, which the
court issued as a formal remedy order. It required the state to ensure that
schools throughout the state met specific standards for teachers,
facilities and other educational "inputs," which meant the Legislature
would have to come up with more money.
That ruling turned out to be the suit's high-water mark. In the intervening
years, some of us drifted away ? I went off and became a reporter ? while
the case dragged on. On four separate occasions, the Alabama Supreme Court
affirmed that the trial court's decision was final. Still, the remedy plan
was not being implemented.
Each year, as new justices joined the Supreme Court, the balance shifted
away from the lawsuit. In 2000, Roy Moore was elected chief judge on his
record of bringing the Ten Commandments into the courtroom (last year, he
had a two-ton Ten Commandments monument installed in the Alabama Supreme
Court building), and it seemed inevitable that if elected, he would work to
overturn the school-funding lawsuit.
In January of this year, Judge Moore and his colleagues laid the groundwork
to do just that. On its own motion, the court decided to reopen the case
for argument about questions that were settled long ago. It invited the
parties to brief a variety of procedural questions, and to reopen the
status of Amendment 111.
The dissenting justices accused the majority of acting lawlessly to wipe
away a decision they didn't like; one called the January order "blatant
judicial activism and a raw abuse of power." The Birmingham News, in an
editorial, said the one thing the edict proved was that "we need some new
justices on the Alabama Supreme Court." But it seems all but certain that
the school-funding case will be over before that happens.
The Supreme Court majority hasn't bothered to argue that Alabama's public
schools are adequate today, or that much has changed in the last decade.
The Legislature has come up with a little more money, and there have been
some modest improvements. Monroe Senior now offers a fuller curriculum, and
the school with the fire ants has been torn down.
But much has remained just the same. Last year, the Alabama papers reported
that in Dallas County, elementary school students were forced to hold
raffles not for field trips or extracurricular activities, but so their
schools could afford paper towels and janitorial supplies. Students are
still sharing textbooks. And the additional financing the Legislature has
provided has only taken Alabama from 49th in per pupil spending to 48th.
The betting right now isn't on whether the Alabama Supreme Court will end
the case, but what legal rubric it will use to do it. Some supporters of
the lawsuit are hoping the court will revive Amendment 111. It would, they
say, put the issues in stark relief if the right to education in Alabama
was taken away by the restoration of that relic of the state's Jim Crow past.
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