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Alabama Public School System Declared Unconstitutional;
ACLU School Lawsuit Could Lead to Major Reform
For IMMEDIATE RELEASE
April 5, 1993
An Alabama state court has declared the state's entire public school
system to be unconstitutional because it deprives school children of their
right to adequate and equitable educational opportunity guaranteed under
the Alabama constitution.
The lawsuit -- Harper v. Hunt -- was filed by the American Civil
Liberties Union and the Alabama Civil Liberties Union, on behalf of a
statewide class of public school children who claimed that they were not
receiving an adequate and equitable education as guaranteed by law.
The decision by Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Eugene Reese is
the latest in a recent series of state court decisions to find school
systems in violation of state constitutional rights to education. Judge
Reese's decision was handed down on Thursday, April 1.
"The Court's decision is an unequivocal statement that Alabama
shortchanged its children by failing to provide an adequate and equitable
education in many school districts throughout the state," said Helen
Hershkoff, the ACLU Associate Legal Director who supervised the case. "The
decision," added Adam Cohen, an ACLU staff attorney who was part of the
legal team, "makes clear that the children have an enforceable right to an
adequate and equitable education under the Alabama Constitution's mandate
of a `liberal system of public schools.'"
During the trial, the ACLU presented testimony that painted a grim
picture of Alabama schools. In one school, for example, children had to
carry bottled water to class because the drinking water was contaminated.
In another, human sewage from a broken septic tank was strewn over the
field in which the children played. In school after school, children
lacked textbooks, computers, courses in basic subjects like math and
science and attended class in unsafe and deteriorating facilities.
"The real issue here is whether these deficiencies and conditions
rise to the level of deprivations of constitutional and statutory
rights," Judge Reese wrote in his decision. "In the opinion of the Court,
Relying on the testimony of educational expert Dr. Steven Ross of
Memphis State University, Judge Reese's opinion noted that Dr. Ross had
reported that "in his extensive studies of schools he had never before
seen conditions as inadequate as those prevailing among some of Alabama's
His opinion also noted that ACLU witnesses testified that "even the
wealthiest school systems in Alabama have unmet needs and are hardly rich
compared with systems in other states."
"The Court found that Alabama's public schools have educational
deficiencies that are not only deplorable but also widespread," Hershkoff
The ACLU called the decision particularly important for Alabama's
poorest schools, its poorest children and African American children. "This
opinion represents a significant legal victory not just for our plaintiff
schoolchildren, but for all Alabamians," said Professor Martha Morgan, a
cooperating attorney for the Alabama CLU. "The Court found that the
state's failure to provide adequate educational opportunities has had a
negative impact on the state's social and economic environment," she
added. "Our state as a whole suffers from the state's failure to live up
to its constitutional responsibility."
The Alabama case had been closely watched nationally because of its
claim that Alabama schools were not only inequitable, but also inadequate
in terms of the education provided to children.
"From the national perspective, the Alabama decision is important
because it guarantees children not only an equitable education, but an
adequate one as well," Hershkoff said. "The court found that without
textbooks, without certified teachers, without computers, and without
basic courses, children cannot be expected to learn and develop."
Finally, the decision is important because of its reliance on state
constitutional law, rather than federal, to protect the children's rights.
"For years we have turned to the federal courts and the federal
Constitution for protection of basic constitutional rights, and these
courts have played, and will continue to play, an important role,"
Hershkoff said. "With this opinion, however, Alabama's state judiciary
joins those in numerous other states -- including Kentucky, West Virginia,
Missouri, and, most recently, Tennessee -- in holding that a state's own
constitution guarantees all children in the state adequate and equitable
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