U.S. Eleventh Circuit - The FindLaw 11th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries Blog

Is Alabama's Property Tax System Racist?

Alabama has the lowest property tax revenues in the country. That's because the Alabama Constitution, drafted in 1901, requires voters to approve tax increases, caps tax millage rates, and allows farm and timberland to be taxed below market value, The Huntsville Times reports. Since the state funds education primarily through sales and income taxes, schools are underfunded.

But is the tax system racist?

Last year, District Judge Lynwood Smith ruled in an 854-page opinion that Alabama's history of discrimination had resulted in underfunded schools, but the system was based on economic interests, not racist intent, Alabama.com reports.

Thursday, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals will hear arguments to decide if it agrees.

In 2008, parents of students in Lawrence and Sumter Counties sued the state, alleging that the property tax system deprives rural, predominantly-black school districts of the funding needed for school programs comparable to other parts of the state. They claim that school funding in Alabama amounts to state-sanctioned racism, NPR reports.

Alabama maintains state tax dollars for education are distributed in an equitable manner.

Judge Smith isn’t exactly a cheerleader for Alabama public schools. In his opinion upholding the property tax system, Smith wrote, “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.”

(In other words, rural students are certainly getting the short end of the education stick, but it’s based on geography, not race.)

The plaintiffs think that Judge Smith misapplied the law. They have 15 minutes this week to persuade the Eleventh Circuit that Alabama tax assessments are rooted in the state’s racist past.

Race relations are far from perfect in the South, but there’s been progress over the last 100 years. Will that progress be enough undermine the plaintiffs’ argument that Alabama school districts are plagued by race-based inequities?

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