Equity funding revived

Published 12:00 am Thursday, February 21, 2002

BNI Newswire

Plaintiffs in the original lawsuit seeking equity funding in education are urging the Alabama Supreme Court to uphold a nine-year-old ruling in the case.

"In 1993, an Alabama court declared that Alabama’s public schoolchildren have a right to equitable and adequate educational opportunities," says a Wednesday statement from plaintiffs’ attorneys. "That declaration was based on Alabama law, the Alabama Constitution and the U.S. Constitution. The ruling setting forth those rights was properly finalized and cannot now be the subject of legitimate review."

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Last month, justices ­ without much explanation and without prompting from either side ­ reopened the lawsuit.

Tari Williams, an ACLU lawyer representing plaintiffs in the case, said the court’s decision last month to reopen the issue was surprising, especially since all parties had agreed that the order was final.

"We had no idea," she said. "I think it’s obvious that the Alabama Supreme Court is trying to reverse this order and say that children in Alabama are not entitled to fair and adequate education."

Last summer, when Williams and other attorneys were representing the same plaintiffs in a separate case involving proration, the court asked attorneys to update them on equity funding. Attorneys didn’t know it would lead to a reopening of the case, Williams said.

What resulted from the decade-old case was the legislation authorizing the Foundation Program, a formula by which the state school board collects tax revenue from larger school districts and distributes it among all school districts.

The legislation was in response to a liability order from the Montgomery Circuit Court, which, according to plaintiffs:

· Established that public schoolchildren in Alabama have a right to equitable and adequate education

· Found the state had violated those rights

· And ordered the state and establish and maintain schools that provide such opportunities.

But, according to plaintiffs, the Supreme Court has already ruled the liability order stemming from the suit was final and no longer subject to review.

Plaintiffs said in Wednesday’s statement that the makeup of the court is the only thing that has changed since the order was made. In January, justices voted mainly along party lines to reopen the case ­ with Republicans in favor of the review.

"The conclusion that the majority of the current court is appropriating to itself jurisdiction the court actually lost years ago is inescapable," the attorneys’ statement says. "The schoolchildren and school systems seeking to vindicate their legal and constitutional rights through ACE v. Siegelman are the only parties ever to be treated this way by the appellate courts of this state. However, the conduct of the majority of this court is not only unparalleled in Alabama, it also violates well-established principles of American jurisprudence."

In a related matter, the Alabama Board of Education last week approved a $1.7 million plan that members say would further guarantee fair and equitable education in the state. But with school funding in crisis over the past year, it’s doubtful legislators would be able to foot the bill for such a project, which is already nearly half the current education budget in the state.