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Legislature must address equity funding

and SEAN DUNLAP

BNI Newswire

The Alabama Supreme Court put the problem of equity funding in education decidedly in the Legislature’s hands Friday, ruling an end to a 12-year-old case filed by poor school districts.

According to the 7-1 ruling, the funding case is over because the task of funding schools rests "squarely upon the shoulders of the Legislature."

In 1993, Circuit Judge Gene Reese of Montgomery had ruled that the way Alabama funds schools is unconstitutional. An outgrowth of that ruling was the current Foundation Program, nicknamed the "Robin Hood" fund, under which each school district contributes the equivalent of 10 mills of tax revenue to a state fund, which is then distributed to all the schools.

The intent is to give poorer districts more money than richer districts.

State Rep. Betty Carol Graham, D-Alexander City, said she does not think Friday’s ruling affects much about equity funding.

"Essentially, it says that the ball is back in the Legislature’s court, and we have still have a problem when it comes to adequately funding the state’s schools," she said. "This is something that the Legislature will have to deal with sooner or later because it is not a problem that is going to just go away. The court is saying that we’re not going to touch this and it’s up to (the Legislature) to come up with some sort of action to correct funding equities with the state’s schools."

The ruling comes just days before a gubernatorial primary election in which school funding has become a major issue. Gov. Don Siegelman, who rode into office four years ago on the promise to try to bring a lottery to Alabama, has again proposed it as a method of raising money for schools.

GOP candidates, adamantly opposed to gambling, have proposed other methods for education funding, notably prior-year budgeting. Budgets are now done on projected revenue, which is partly why the 2001 budget was prorated when tax collections did not meet expectations.

Local school systems have had their share of problems with equity funding – and with the Foundation Program itself.

Attorney General Bill Pryor praised the ruling, which he called "both conservative and proper."

"I am pleased that the constitutional right of Alabama children to an education has been upheld, and the constitutional authority of the Legislature and State Board of Education has been preserved," he said.

The majority Republican court reopened the case in January, without a request from either side. Democrat Douglas Johnstone was the lone dissenter in Friday’s ruling, because he said the court had not been asked to review the case and therefore no longer had jurisdiction.