RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We're going to the next few minutes talking about public schools and specifically, how much money they get to educate kids, because the truth is, it varies wildly depending on where you live. If you're in a poor community without a lot of property tax revenue, your school could have half the resources of a school just a few miles away. In Alabama a few years ago, parents and teachers sued the state, arguing that school funding there is both inadequate and unfair. To understand why, Dan Carsen of member station WBHM takes us to rural Sumter County.
DAN CARSEN, BYLINE: Livingston Junior High School principal Tramene Maye walks me around his building.
TRAMENE MAYE: And the girls restroom, they may have four or five stalls, but only one works.
CARSEN: He takes me to a former classroom that leaks when it rains. Garbage cans catch some of the water, but you can tell from the moldy smell and the buckled floor they miss plenty. Around the school, there are broken windows, peeling paint and cracked floors.
MAYE: We have 580 students. I - you know, everything should be functioning.
CARSEN: Jewel Townsend's a star student at Sumter Central High, which is in better shape than Livingston. But Townsend says it's still hard when she travels and sees what other schools have.
JEWEL TOWNSEND: And I see that Sumter County doesn't have that. It's like, wow, really, why can't we have that?
CARSEN: And the issues aren't just with buildings in this largely poor, black school district. Sumter superintendent Tyrone Yarbrough.
TYRONE YARBROUGH: We would love to have music and art in all of our schools. We don't have that. You know, if we had some kids who were interested in, say, orchestra, we don't have that.
CARSEN: Many states send extra dollars to districts that serve low-income kids. Alabama does not. In richer districts, local property tax revenue makes a big difference for schools. But in rural Sumter, there isn't much to tax. And it's hard to raise rates on what is there. Voters, not local school boards, have to approve those hikes. Sumter's tried and failed to twice in recent years. And school board member Julene DeLaine says there's another challenge.
JULENE DELAINE: They live in this county, but they will not send their children to the schools in this county.
CARSEN: A quarter of the population is white, and just about all of those families send their kids to a local private academy, or outside the area.
DELAINE: But guess what? We're going to always be together. We shop at the same place. We eat at the same restaurants. So why can't our kids go to school together?
CARSEN: State Senator and Education Committee chairman Dick Brewbaker is a former teacher. He's planning to resign his chairmanship because of what he calls colossal failures in education. But he says counties like Sumter still need to be willing to spend more.
DICK BREWBAKER: If you look at the poorest school systems in the state, their local tax average is extremely low - I mean, extremely low. At the same time, they want to make these loud arguments for equity funding. That dog is not going to hunt in Alabama.
CARSEN: In 2011, plaintiffs from Sumter tried to prove Alabama's school funding system, with its low property taxes on farm and timberland, and its hurdles to raising local taxes, has always been racially discriminatory. The federal judge excoriated the system with an 800-page opinion, but ultimately found the plaintiffs were not entitled to relief from the court. Still, there's hope. Twelfth-grader Jewel Townsend says she wants to go to college to become a teacher. For NPR News, I'm Dan Carsen in Sumter County, Alabama.
MARTIN: And that story came to us from the Southern Education Desk, a public radio reporting project. To see what schools are spending where you live, go to npr.org/schoolmoney.
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