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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.


BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — 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.

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