School Funding Cases in Alabama

in Alabama Litigation

Historical Background

In 1991, the Alabama Coalition for Equity (ACE) and the ACLU of Alabama, filed suits challenging the state’s education finance system on adequacy and equity grounds. The cases were consolidated and went to trial in 1992. The trial court’s 1993 liability decision, ACE v. Hunt, held for plaintiffs on both the adequacy and equity claims based on the state constitution.

A remedy negotiated among the parties and ordered by the court, in ACE v. Folsom, included performance-based education, professional development, early childhood programs, inclusive special education, and equitable and adequate funding — to be fully funded within six years. The Alabama Supreme Court upheld the liability order in Opinion of the Justices (1993), but vacated the remedy order in 1997 (Ex Parte Governor Fob James).

Extraordinary Order to Dismiss

In 2002, the Alabama Supreme Court, on its own initiative, in an extraordinary order, re-opened the case, which it had affirmed on four previous occasions, and, in May 2002, years after its appellate jurisdiction had expired, dismissed the case.

Revenue Shortfalls and Tax Re-structuring Proposals

In 2001, the Alabama Association of School Boards (AASB) and a number of individual school districts went to court to challenge across the board budget cuts that included  K-12 education. Plaintiffs’ position was opposed by Alabama colleges and universities, which would have borne the brunt of the cuts if K-12 education gained relief. In Siegelman v. AASB (2001), the Alabama Supreme Court held that K-12 education is not protected from “proration,” i.e. across the board cuts.

On October, 21, 2011, U.S. District Judge C. Lynwood Smith Jr. dismissed Lynch v. State of Alabama, a case in which plaintiffs claimed that the constitutional property tax system enacted in the 19th century with an intention of maintaining low tax rates in black belt counties in order limit funding available for the education of black students  limits current educational opportunities of Alabama’s black and low-income children, particularly in the Black Belt region in the state.

Judge Smith said that “Plaintiffs have proved a disparity in funding among the state’s public schools systems, but not a disparity along racial lines.” He concluded that the amendments adopted in the 1970’s and 1980’s to Alabama’s 1901 Constitution allow and encourage “a large measure of participation in and control of each district’s schools at the local level.” Though the court did not rule that the tax  system or its implementation  denied black or low-income students equal protection of the laws under the federal constitution, Smith noted the inability of rural counties, in the Black Belt and elsewhere, to generate local tax revenues to fund public services to the extent of urban counties.

Costing Out

In October 2001, the state Board of Education submitted a plan for upgrading Alabama’s schools to the Circuit Court. The plan called for an increase of $1.4 billion annually, 50% more than the $2.9 billion Alabama was spending that year on its K-12 public schools. This cost study, unlike most, did include structural repairs for school buildings, at $438 million. However, the study was not released to the public and became moot due to dismissal of the case in 2002.

Useful Resources:

For bi-weekly updates on education issues in Alabama, visit the A+ Education Foundation’s website.

Martha I. Morgan, Adam S. Cohen, and Helen Hirschkoff, Establishing Education Program Inadequacy: The Alabama Example, University of Michigan, 28 Journal of Law Reform 559 (Spring 1995)

D. Frank Vinik, The Contrasting Politics of Remedy: The Alabama and Kentucky School Equity Funding Suits, 22 Journal of Education Finance 60 (Summer 1996)

Jeffrey Scott Berman and Drew Dunphy, Building Plans for Reform: Alabama’s School Finance Litigation (Campaign for Fiscal Equity, Inc., July 1998).

Last Updated: February 2012

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