K-12 public schools in Alabama enroll about 746,000 students, with 52% in poverty, 3% learning English, 41% minorities, and annual expenditures of almost $7 billion. (Most recent NCES data)
In response to a 1993 trial court finding that Alabama’s school funding system was unconstitutionally inequitable and inadequate, the state revamped its funding system and improved facilities across the state.
In 2008, plaintiffs in Lynch v. State alleged that segregation-era property tax restrictions in the Alabama Constitution prevented minority communities from funding their local schools beyond a minimal amount. In 2011, finding that the constitutional limits on the property tax were not motivated by racially-discriminatory intent, the District Court in Lynch found no Equal Protection violation and dismissed the case.
Plaintiffs in Lynch v. State sued in federal court, seeking a declaratory judgment that the state constitution’s property tax restrictions, which allegedly cause under-funding of schools, violate the U.S. Constitution’s 14th amendment and Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. In an 800+ page opinion that was highly critical of inequities in Alabama public school financing, the District court nonetheless found no violation of the Constitution or federal law. While acknowledging that the Alabama Constitution, when originally passed, was infected root and branch with segregationist intent, the District Court concluded that the challenged constitutional passages had been cleansed of discriminatory intent by constitutional amendments dating from the 1970s.
In 1993, in Alabama Coalition for Equity (ACE) v. Hunt, a state trial court declared education a fundamental right in Alabama and held that the state funding system for public schools failed to provide "equitable and adequate educational opportunities" for all schoolchildren, as required by the state constitution. The court ordered the state to present a remedial plan and, after further proceedings, issued a remedial order.
The state supreme court, in 1997, vacated the remedial part of the order, holding that the trial court needed to wait "a reasonable time" for the legislature to enact a solution.
In 2002, shortly before a scheduled hearing on whether the state had remedied the violation after "a reasonable time," and long after its own appellate jurisdiction had ended, the Alabama Supreme Court, on its own initiative, dismissed this litigation in its entirety. The composition of the elected supreme court had changed in the intervening years.
In 2008, plaintiffs filed a different type of lawsuit, Lynch v. State, in federal district court, seeking a declaratory judgment that the state constitution’s property tax restrictions violate the U.S. Constitution’s 14th amendment and Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Plaintiffs argued that post-Civil War property tax policy in western Alabama, which continued through the 1970s and beyond, was used to deprive funding for public education to freed slaves and their descendants. Plaintiffs alleged that this has severely restricted education funding for African-American and other rural children.
While acknowledging that the Alabama Constitution, when originally passed, was infected root and branch with segregationist intent, the District Court concluded that the challenged constitutional passages had been cleansed of discriminatory intent by constitutional amendments dating from the 1970s. Absent evidence of continuing discriminatory intent, the Court found the property tax restrictions, while substantially harmful to minority groups, did not violate the Constitution or federal law. The District Court went on to criticize both the inequities of the Alabama educational funding system, and the Supreme Court's equal protection jurisprudence, suggesting that 14th Amendment causes of action had been defined too narrowly by the Burger and Rehnquist courts.
"The legislature shall establish, organize, and maintain a liberal system of public schools throughout the state for the benefit of the children thereof between the ages of seven and twenty-one years….Separate schools shall be provided for white and colored children, and no child of either race shall be permitted to attend a school of the other race." Alabama Const., art. XIV, § 256.
Alabama amended its constitution in 1956 in response to Brown v. Board of Education, specifically renouncing any right to a free public education, stating that "nothing in this Constitution should be construed as creating or recognizing" such a right. The trial court, in ACE v. Hunt, declared that this amendment violated the federal constitution due to its racist intent. However, since the Alabama Supreme Court did not review this holding, the amended version remains the official version according to Alabama law. Code of Ala. § 29-7-11(b)(6).
An amendment titled "Amendment 2" that intended to remove the archaic language regarding segregation in this clause and others from the constitution was defeated in 2004 by a narrow margin in a state vote. While some argued that this decision was about racism, groups opposing the amendment stated that they feared tax increases with the creation of a right to education. However, some argue that because this language violates the U.S. Constitution it cannot be enforced to create separate schools.
The Alabama Supreme Court has not interpreted the state constitution’s education article. However, in its 2002 self-initiated decision, noted above, the court said that the separation of powers provision of the constitution trumped any jurisdiction of the court to declare the state education finance system unconstitutional. The court wrote, “In Alabama, separation of powers is not merely an implicit ‘doctrine’ but rather an express command; a command stated with a forcefulness rivaled by few, if any, similar provisions in constitutions of other sovereigns.” On that basis, the court dismissed the ACE v. Hunt case, also known by other names.
In ACE v. Hunt, the trial court discussed what the state constitution’s education article requires, borrowing from the Kentucky Supreme Court’s Rose v. Council for Better Education opinion:
"… at a minimum, an education that provides students with the opportunity to attain the following:
- sufficient oral and written communication skills to function in Alabama, and at the national and international levels, in the coming years;
- sufficient mathematic and scientific skills to function in Alabama, and at the national and international levels, in the coming years;
- sufficient knowledge of economic, social, and political systems generally, and of the history, politics, and social structure of Alabama and the United States, specifically, to enable the student to make informed choices;
- sufficient understanding of governmental processes and of basic civic institutions to enable the student to understand and contribute to the issues that affect his or her community, state, and nation;
- sufficient self-knowledge and knowledge of principles of health and mental hygiene to enable the student to monitor and contribute to his or her own physical and mental well-being;
- sufficient understanding of the arts to enable each student to appreciate his or her cultural heritage and the cultural heritages of others;
- sufficient training, or preparation for advanced training, in academic or vocational skills, and sufficient guidance, to enable each child to choose and pursue life work intelligently; (viii) sufficient levels of academic or vocational skills to enable public school students to compete favorably with their counterparts in Alabama, in surrounding states, across the nation, and throughout the world, in academics or in the job market; and
- sufficient support and guidance so that every student feels a sense of self-worth and ability to achieve, and so that every student is encouraged to live up to his or her full human potential." 1993 WL 204083 (Ala. Cir. Ct. Montgomery Cty. 1993) (appendix to Opinion of the Justices, No. 338, 624 So.2d 107, 166 (Ala. 1993)).
The trial court’s 1993 remedial order, in Alabama Coalition for Equity (ACE) v. Hunt, required the state to provide early childhood education programs: "An early childhood education development program shall be developed and implemented to supplement Head Start to provide services to disadvantaged four-year olds." The Alabama Supreme Court’s 1997 decision, in Ex parte James, vacated the trial court’s remedial order. Nos. CV-90-883-R, CV-91-0117-R (Ala. Cir. Ct. Montgomery Cty. 1993), aff’d in part, rev’d in part Ex parte James (Alabama Coalition for Equity v. James), 713 So.2d 869, 882, 929 (Ala. 1997).
The Alabama preschool program is rated an exceptionally high 10 out of 10 on the established quality indicators, but serves only 6% of 4-year-olds.
The mission of the Alabama Office of School Readiness is to "prepare Alabama’s Children for school success and lifelong learning" through "effective, high-quality, early childhood experiences … accessible to ALL of Alabama’s children."
Alabama's state funded Pre-K program, First Class, is administered through the Alabama Department of Children's Affairs Office of School Readiness. First Class is a full-day program that serves 4-year-olds in a variety of settings including, public schools, private child care centers, Head Start centers, faith-based centers, colleges and universities, community organizations, and military agencies. Both the Office of School Readiness and the Alabama Council on Family and Children foster collaboration and coordination between different agencies and providers.
All four-year-olds are eligible to receive services in First Class. The program must meet at least 6.5 hours daily, 5 days a week, for 180 days a year.
First Class is funded through a competitive grant process that consists of two components:
1) Pre-K Excellence Funding Grants ($45,000) are awarded to public school systems, Head Start centers, private childcare centers, and other community-based early learning programs to help them meet “Alabama High Quality Pre-K Standards”
2) Pre-K State Supported Slots provide varying levels of funding ($45,000-$87,120) to pre-K classrooms based on the number of low and middle income children they serve. The Office of School Readiness oversees the program and disperses funds appropriated from the Legislature.
Providers may charge fees to parents according to a sliding scale, ranging from $40 to $300 per month.
According to the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), Alabama served 6% of all four-year-olds in its state preschool program in 2009-2010.
Alabama was one of only three states to receive the highest quality rating, meeting 10 out 10 benchmarks.
The state requires teachers to have a bachelor’s degree and certification or academic concentration in early childhood, and requires assistant teachers to have at least a CDA credential or its equivalent. All teachers must have specialized pre-K training. Programs are not allowed to exceed a class size of 20 or a ratio of 1:10.
Alabama has implemented early childhood performance standards that meet NIEER’s benchmark for comprehensive early learning standards. The state requires programs to use an Office of School Readiness approved curriculum. Programs also must provide vision, hearing, health, and developmental delay screening, as well as parent support services, and site visits are required for monitoring purposes.
The Alabama pre-K operating guidelines provide for program evaluation through random on-site visits.