Skip directly to content

Alabama Coalition for Equity

Barclay Key, Western Illinois University
The Alabama Coalition for Equity (ACE) is a nonprofit corporation that formed in early 1990 to force the state of Alabama to reduce funding disparities in K-12 schools through the court system. Though the organization could point to some legal successes, it was not able to convince lawmakers to substantially increase education funding. Efforts to increase that funding are ongoing.
In 1987, DeWayne Key, the superintendent of Lawrence County schools, one of the poorer systems in the state, began pursuing a solution to the financial dilemmas faced by poorer systems. Frustrated over the unlikelihood of increased state appropriations, Key considered the possibility of litigation and found an ally in Clement C. Torbert Jr., a former state senator and two-term chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court. Key and Torbert convinced other poorly funded school systems that a lawsuit might eventually ease their woes.

Key and Torbert were able to enlist 14 underfunded school systems, most of which were in the generally impoverished Black Belt region, and formed ACE on February 5, 1990. On May 3, 1990, ACE filed a lawsuit in Montgomery County Circuit Court; Alabama Coalition for Equity v. Governor Guy Hunt, et al., sought to equalize per student expenditures across the state.

Legacy of Neglect
The plaintiffs focused their suit on Section 256 of the 1901 Alabama state constitution, which guaranteed support for public education. Funding for education was never a high priority for the drafters of the constitution and subsequent legislators. The tax structure implemented by the constitution kept property taxes extremely low, thereby restricting a reliable source of revenue for public schools. Also, for many white state officials, the education of black children was an afterthought. As of 1918, for example, only three four-year high schools for black students existed in the entire state, and the legislature never made concerted efforts to ensure that black schools were equal to white schools. In addition, in 1956 voters ratified Amendment 111, which overrode Section 256 by voiding the right of children to a public education, stating that "nothing in this Constitution should be construed as creating or recognizing" that education is a right. The civil rights era amendment was introduced at the behest of a legislative committee that sought to avoid desegregating schools. The committee reasoned that if children were not entitled to an education, then desegregation could not be pressed in the courts.
Although schools were eventually desegregated under federal court orders, the state never overcame the legacy of financial neglect. In the last decades of the twentieth century, poor and predominantly black school systems struggled most. During the 1989-1990 academic year, for example, Alabama's poorest school system, Roanoke, spent $2,731 per student, whereas the wealthiest system, Mountain Brook, spent $4,820, a figure that still fell below the national average.

Others Join the Cause

In January 1991, the Civil Liberties Union of Alabama (CLUA) filed a lawsuit similar to ACE's on behalf of 20 schoolchildren whose systems were not part of the ACE, and this case was combined with ACE v. Hunt. The Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program (ADAP) also joined the plaintiffs to address the state's miserly support of special education, and as publicity about the case increased, 20 more school systems joined ACE. In addition to Gov. Guy Hunt, the suit named the lieutenant governor, state superintendent, State Board of Education, president pro tempore of the state Senate, speaker of the House of Representatives, and the director of the Alabama Department of Finance as defendants. However, soon all of the defendants except the governor and state finance director (both Republicans) realigned with the plaintiffs.
In a 1991 ruling, Circuit Court Judge Gene Reese determined that Amendment 111 was unconstitutional. The trial itself commenced in August 1992, and it featured testimony about the deplorable conditions in some Alabama schools. Key testified that Lawrence County was forced to transport students on dilapidated, high mileage buses. An elementary school in Wilcox County did not have a single piece of working playground equipment. A disabled Choctaw County child whose only exercise was crawling on the floor had no carpeted area on which to crawl. Educational experts who studied Alabama's schools testified that 50 percent of wealthier schools had audiovisual production facilities, compared to only 17 percent of poorer schools. Science labs were twice as likely to be available in more affluent schools.

Remedy Order Issued
On March 31, 1993, Reese ruled that Alabama's public schools were inadequate and its system of funding public schools was inequitable. Despite fighting the case for three years, Governor Hunt claimed to support the ruling, and by the end of the year, Judge Reese issued a remedy order, developed with heavy input from ACE, that required the state to fix the system.
The plaintiffs' celebration was short-lived. Although Hunt's term was cut short by scandals, his replacement, Jim Folsom Jr., could not muster enough political clout to guide an educational reform package through the legislature before the 1994 election season. Education reform became an important issue in the gubernatorial campaign, as Folsom promised reform and compliance with Judge Reese's remedy order. The Republican nominee and eventual winner, Forrest "Fob" James Jr., vowed to fight what he described as a usurpation of executive and legislative powers and was supported by political conservatives who warned of tax increases that were sure to accompany substantive education reform.

Momentum Fades
The momentum generated by ACE and the equity funding case for educational reform soon faltered. As governor, James appealed the case to the Alabama Supreme Court, which in 1997 agreed with the decision that the schools were inadequately funded but decided against the remedy order. In 2002, the court summarily dismissed the case without issuing a decision on the legality of Amendment 111.
Meanwhile, the state legislature took a few meager steps to address educational disparities. Lawmakers agreed to fully fund the cost of school transportation and revised one funding stream to distribute funds in inverse proportion to a system's property tax wealth. These changes were welcomed by ACE, but they fell far short of the changes proposed in Judge Reese's remedy order. Whereas the ACE and the initial success of the equity funding case opened the possibility of meaningful educational reforms, the traditional recalcitrance of the state legislature and the power wielded by political conservatives served as obstacles that ACE and its allies could not overcome. The issue remains unresolved.
Additional Resources
Harvey, Ira W. Financing Alabama's Schools. Montgomery, Ala.: Center for Government and Public Affairs, Auburn University at Montgomery, 2000.
Vinik, D. Frank. "The Contrasting Politics of Remedy: The Alabama and Kentucky School Equity Funding Suits." Journal of Education Finance 22 (Summer 1996): 60-87.
Ward, Keith J., and Lane D. Sauser. Equity Funding for Education: A Report to the Alabama Legislature. Auburn, Ala: Center for Governmental Services, Auburn University, 1997.
Published:  February 27, 2009   |   Last updated:  February 12, 2015