Justice  /  Vignette

Jeff Sessions’ Other Civil Rights Problem

As attorney general of Alabama two decades ago, Sessions fought to preserve Alabama's long history of separate and unequal education.
AP Photo/Lana Harris

As a result, by the early 1990s, huge disparities in funding separated Alabama’s haves and have-nots. Alabama’s wealthiest school district (and also one of its whitest), Mountain Brook, in suburban Birmingham, spent nearly twice as much per student as the state’s poorest, Roanoke, in a declining manufacturing town about two hours southeast. Poor schools often lacked even rudimentary facilities, including science labs. They struggled to pay teachers, even to repair dilapidated school buses. Half of Alabama’s school buildings lacked air conditioning. Underfunded schools had a particularly hard time meeting the needs of disabled students, whom they were required to support under federal law.

Nearly 30 of Alabama’s poorest school districts, with support from disability rights groups, civil rights organizations and the American Civil Liberties Union, filed suit against the state. The most vocal critics of school reform, including the far-right activist Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum, warned that it would bring “socialism” to Alabama.

After nearly three years of litigation, Judge Eugene W. Reese of the Alabama Circuit Court found the inequitable funding unconstitutional and ordered the state to come up with a system to remedy the inequity.

Attorney General Sessions led the battle against the decision. He argued that Judge Reese had overreached. It was a familiar war cry on the segregationist right: An activist court was usurping the power of the state’s duly elected officials to solve the problem on their own. For the next two years, Mr. Sessions sought to discredit Judge Reese and overturn his ruling. In one of the twists of austerity budgeting in the mid-1990s, Mr. Sessions had laid off 70 lawyers in the attorney general’s office, and had to find outside counsel to handle the case. Lawyers working on contract for the office were to be paid no more than $85 per hour, but for the challenge to the equity case, the fee cap was lifted.

Mr. Sessions was lauded by fellow Republicans for his efforts. They saw funding inequities as part of the natural order of things, not as a problem to be remedied. And any remedy would entail either the redistribution of funds from wealthier to poorer districts or an increase in taxes. Both positions ran against the small-government, privatization dogma that Mr. Sessions promoted.

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