Alabama Judge Finds Rural Discrimination in School Funding But No Legal Basis to Rule for Plaintiffs

Last Updated: November 29, 2011

This article appeared in the November 2011 Rural Policy Matters.

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A federal district court judge has ruled against plaintiffs from Lawrence and Sumter Counties, Alabama who claimed that black schoolchildren in the state are disproportionately affected by the state’s tax code and that it is a vestige of institutionalized discrimination. During the bench trial held earlier this year, attorneys for the plaintiffs presented historical evidence about the racially motivated tax laws found in the 1901 Alabama State Constitution along with testimony related to more recent tax code amendments enacted in the past 40 years.

Plaintiffs in Lynch v. Alabama also claimed that there are clear racial patterns in the damaging effects of low revenue for education on children living in the Black Belt region of the state where most property is classified as “unimproved” farm and timber land and taxed at very low rates.

Representative students and taxpayers asked the court to halt use of the challenged parts of the tax code for one year until new laws could be written by the Legislature. (For more background, see coverage of the trial in the May issue of RSFN, here and here.)

Plaintiffs were seeking relief in federal court for several reasons. Alabama, like many states, had been sued in state court over its school funding system, but in a notable 2002 judicial event, the Alabama Supreme Court halted the most recent finance lawsuit that was in the remedy phase at that time. The court dismissed the case and prohibited future litigation on school funding. (For a summary of these previous state court cases, see the ACCESS Network website, which maintains summaries of school finance litigation in all states.

The Lynch plaintiffs were also seeking enforcement of a holding in another federal court case, Knight and Sims v. Alabama, a desegregation case involving the state’s higher education system. Lynch argued for enforcement of holdings by the Alabama Supreme Court in the 2004 Knight decision that stated the tax policies were adopted for segregative purposes and with discriminatory intent. Although the Alabama high court refused to grant the relief requested — striking down those constitutional provisions — the finding that they were racially discriminatory still stands.

Judge C. Lynwood Smith Jr.'s  854-page decision carefully details the state’s tax code, history of segregation, previous state litigation over the funding system, desegregation litigation, and school finance litigation generally. However, he held that the more recent tax code amendments, commonly referred to as the “lid bill,” were not clearly enacted with racially discriminatory intent and that there was no evidence of racially disparate impact on black Alabama students. Interestingly, the judge pointed out the rural nature of the disparity:

“What the impact measures do show is that Alabama’s rural counties, both those in the Black Belt and those located outside that section of the State, are unable to generate significant local tax revenues to fund public services for their citizens to the same extent as urban counties can (and sometimes do). However, residence in a rural area is not a constitutionally protected suspect class.”

Because the court did not find the race-based issues in the lid bill or its implementation as the plaintiffs had hoped, the tax code was only subject to what is referred to as a ‘rational basis’ review, which means that if there is any rational basis for the governmental action, it will be found constitutional. Judge Smith explained:

“Like it or not, Supreme Court precedent compels a conclusion that the property tax scheme embedded in Alabama’s 1901 Constitution and subsequent amendments does not offend the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. The inability of plaintiffs to prove both that the challenged constitutional provisions are the product of a racially discriminatory intent, and that the provisions produce a racially disproportionate effect, mandates the application of a “rational basis” standard of judicial review. That lenient test produces, as it nearly always does, a ruling in favor of defendants.”

Although entering a finding for the defendants, Judge Smith clearly perceives the entrenched inequalities for rural schools as well as for black students in Alabama and across the nation:

“None of this is meant to say, however, that the court is satisfied as to either the quality or equality of public education in this State. Alabama continues to be plagued by an inadequately funded public school system — one that hinders the upward mobility of her citizens, black and white alike, especially in rural counties. That circumstance is the product of two unfortunate realities. The first is mankind’s self-serving nature. Taxpayers are generally unwilling to pay for government services that do not benefit them directly, and they specifically dislike property taxes. Interest groups spend untold amounts in lawyer, lobbying, and advertising fees to promote legislation enhancing the wealth of their members. State powerbrokers perceive little benefit from investing in a quality statewide public school system, because the children of their most influential constituents are generally enrolled in exclusive suburban school systems, with large local tax bases, or in private schools. Many of those private schools sprouted following court-mandated integration. As demonstrated in this opinion, however, “white flight” to the suburbs or private schools has not disproportionately harmed blacks. Instead, it also punishes many white students who remain in the public school systems. The children of the rural poor, whether black or white, are left to struggle as best as they can in underfunded, dilapidated schools. Their resulting lack of an adequate education not only deprives those students of a fair opportunity to prepare themselves to compete in a global economy, but also deprives the State of fully-participating, well-educated adult citizens.”

After the ruling, attorneys for the plaintiffs responded in a comment reported in the Huntsville Times: "We have not had an opportunity ro carefully to study the district judge's opinion. But we can say now that the judgment entered today by the federal court in Huntsville is regrettable." They continued, "The judgment is regrettable for the plaintiffs, schoolchildren in the Black Belt and other rural counties, who will continue to receive an inferior education relying on an inadequate tax base. It is regrettable for their brave parents and communities who wanted a better future for their children."

The Lynch decision points up yet again the challenges of affecting systems change in school finance policy and the strong commitment of rural people to the long-term battle. In a challenging policy climate, rural citizens turn to courts for relief. Yet an accompanying advocacy effort in state legislatures, before school boards, and in the community is also necessary.

Read more:

Local coverage:

Read the decision at this website which houses all of the legal pleadings from both the Knight and Lynch cases:

Coverage in Education Week:

Read more from the November 2011 Rural Policy Matters.