Alabama Fights to Rescue Public Schools Mired in Mediocrity : Education: Legislature, under judicial prodding to revamp state's approach, is locked in debate on rival plans in its current session.


The statistics tell the story: Forty-eight percent of all adults in Alabama failed to graduate from high school. An estimated 25% of the state's adults cannot read.

"There's a mind-set that simply does not value education," said DeWayne Key, a former science teacher and school superintendent.

As a result, Alabama remains at or near the bottom in most national educational rankings.

That might not continue for long, however. Education reform has come to the Heart of Dixie, which is locked in a debate over how to level the playing field for its 723,000 public school students, many of whom are accustomed to old books, dingy paint and unrealized dreams.

On radio call-in shows, people are discussing classroom funding and teaching methods. Parents are turning out in large numbers for meetings about improving schools. In Montgomery, politicians up for reelection are giving education their undivided attention.

Most other Southern states have already gone down the path toward improving their schools. Even Mississippi passed sweeping education reform measures in 1982.

But the debate over schools is virtually unprecedented in Alabama.

There have always been, of course, thousands of parents concerned about education. Businesses and industrial recruiters have constantly pleaded for better schools and qualified graduates.

"Polls show it's the No. 1 issue in the state. It has been for several years," said Pat Cotter, a pollster with Southern Opinion Research in Tuscaloosa.

Public opinion never was enough to move schools to the front of the agenda, though. It took something else, something more concrete: a court order.

A state judge in Montgomery has given leaders a Sept. 30 deadline for revamping Alabama's public schools, with the implicit threat that he will do it himself if the Legislature fails to act by then.

The 1993 decision by Circuit Judge Gene Reese came in a lawsuit filed by the Alabama Coalition for Equity, a group of 28 poor school systems. The suit claimed the state's current method of funding schools unfairly favors wealthy systems instead of putting money in poorer districts that do not have sufficient tax bases to fund schools.

Reese sided with the poor systems, but went a step further in deciding that Alabama's public schools do not offer "equitable and adequate" opportunities to all children. He set forth 11 broad principles for reform while leaving the specifics to legislators.

After decades of little more than rhetoric about the importance of schools, State School Supt. Wayne Teague said the decision finally is making Alabama take stock of its problems.

"Not enough people have shown an interest in a long time," Teague said. "The best friend education has had in my lifetime has been Judge Reese."

Now, with the political campaign season heating up, Gov. Jim Folsom, legislators and other leaders are trying to balance Reese's order with the election-year booby-traps of taxes and children's futures.

Lawmakers are considering two reform plans: one backed by big business and Folsom; the other touted by conservative Republicans in an odd coalition with teachers' union lobbyist Paul Hubbert, an opponent of Folsom in the Democratic gubernatorial primary.

Both proposals would reduce class sizes, lengthen the school year and fix worn-out buildings. Supporters claim each would result in better-educated children. But either plan would carry a huge price tag.

Jim Williams, executive director of the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama, estimated the academic improvements under either proposal would cost nearly $1 billion. Fixing ramshackle schoolhouses and buying new buses could cost another $1 billion.

To pay for the improvements, Folsom is proposing $166 million in new taxes phased in over several years, coupled with growth in existing taxes. A $1.2-billion bond sale would finance improvements in school buildings and buy buses and computers.

As if the cost were not enough of an obstacle, some school systems simply do not want to be reformed.

In Hoover, a wealthy Birmingham suburb with a broad tax base, three new schools are under construction. Supt. Robert Bumpus is worried that whatever comes out of Montgomery will hurt his 6,100-student system.

"We feel if they are really serious about improving education, leave us alone if we are doing a good job," he said.

Hoover collects the most local school revenue of any district in the state--$2,938 per pupil annually--and Bumpus fears legislators or the judge might try to take some of that away and give it to a poorer system in the name of equalized funding.

"My concern is that they could very well destroy Hoover city schools if they don't leave funding alone," the superintendent said.

The fears are different in rural, impoverished Dallas County, which raises a state-low $202 locally for each of the 2,000 students in its school system. Parents and teachers there are afraid changes resulting from the school reform debate won't be radical enough.

Take Five Points Elementary School, located about 15 miles outside Selma. The school's 212 students make do with antiquated bathrooms, encyclopedias dating back to the mid-1960s and poor lighting. The only play equipment is a rusted basketball hoop hanging over a pool of muddy water.

"We have the self-esteem. We have the enthusiasm. It's just the facilities," said Principal George Poole.

Despite the crying needs of some systems, few would be surprised if the Legislature fails to act, based on Alabama history.

While the state constitution of 1901 requires the Legislature to redraw its district lines every 10 years, lawmakers shrugged off the mandate for more than six decades until the U.S. Supreme Court intervened.

It was only after a federal judge ordered change in Alabama's mental health system in the 1970s that the state began improving inhumane conditions in its mental hospitals. The pattern held true in desegregation, prison overcrowding and the child-welfare system.

Education is the same. It has been generations since Alabama schools got their last major overhaul.

In 1935, a Legislature dominated by farm interests set local funding minimums, then used state money to supplement the poorest systems. The law was considered one of the nation's best plans to equalize school funding at the time.

Three years later, in 1938, legislators adjusted the amounts of local taxes that school systems were required to raise. But in 1939, lawmakers froze the state's total assessed property value at $938 billion amid fears that land prices were decreasing because of the Depression.

As the state got caught up in the racial politics of segregation, schools moved to the back of the bus. Partly as a result, the amount of local tax support required for schools has never been significantly changed.

There have been sporadic attempts over the last 55 years to adjust the system. In 1969, legislators approved a funding plan that allocated state money on the basis of average daily attendance. Test scores and teacher salaries went up.

"For several years there, we looked pretty good," said Albert Brewer, governor at the time. "But everyone else kept progressing and developing their programs, and about all we did was add kindergarten."

In 1991, lawmakers passed what was billed as a major effort to reduce class size, improve curriculum and increase the accountability of local schools. The changes were hollow, though, because legislators refused to appropriate any money for the reforms.

Now, the 1991 Education Improvement Act is the basis of a plan backed jointly by Republicans and the teachers' union to meet the judge's order. A group called Score 100 is trying to build support for the proposal.

Among other things, the Score 100 proposal would establish a core curriculum and establish fines of as much as $1,000 for parents who fail to show up for teacher conferences or refuse to help correct behavior problems.

Schools also would be required to maintain traditional grading methods, teach reading through phonics and instruct youngsters on the differences between communism and free-market economies.

Initial supporters of the plan included the Alabama Education Assn. and the Alabama Farmers Federation, two powerful Statehouse forces that butt heads on most issues. Joining with them was the Eagle Forum, a conservative women's group with considerable clout in the Bible Belt state.

Despite that weighty trio, legislators focused nearly all their attention on a rival plan backed by the governor and a group called A Plus, which is financed mainly by the state's industrial leaders.

Folsom's plan would put the state under a performance-based education system, as required by the judge. Such plans are founded on the principle that all children can learn at higher levels and require students to meet certain standards.

The governor's proposal also would establish community centers in poor areas to help solve social ills and provide for after-hours programs to help slow learners.

Opponents of the Folsom plan contend that although all children deserve a chance, performance-based plans have not worked in states like Kentucky, which adopted such a system because of a lawsuit like the one in Alabama.

They also contend that performance-based education is part of a shadowy national movement to indoctrinate children with liberal beliefs, such as the acceptance of homosexuality, rather than teach the basics.

Bettye Fine Collins, a Republican member of the State Board of Education, told about 200 parents during one Score 100 meeting that first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton was a "major player" in what she claimed was a conspiracy of political correctness.

"They're interested in restructuring lives," she said. "Womb to tomb is what they want."

Leaders of the reform effort deny any ulterior motives. They say their main goal is to make school funding fairer and improve conditions in the classroom.

Key, the former teacher and ex-superintendent, put together the coalition of school systems that sued for change. He said conservatives are dredging up fears over vague liberal agendas and teaching techniques because they do not want to pay more taxes for public schools.

Hanging in the balance is the question of whether a judge or elected representatives will chart the future of Alabama's schools.

"Having it deteriorate to a debate over education philosophy compares to showing up at a great banquet and going over in a corner and eating peanut butter and crackers," Key said.

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