ETF increase not enough to restore Alabama schools to pre-recession funding

Alabama’s education funding is expected to increase next year, but K-12 and higher education need a far larger increase to meet students’ needs adequately, lawmakers heard Tuesday during the second day of state budget hearings in Montgomery.

Spending in the Education Trust Fund (ETF) budget will be $134 million, or 2.3 percent, higher next year, according to the Legislative Fiscal Office. But that amount is far less than the total $474 million in increases that K-12 and higher education officials have requested. It is also 18.7 percent less than Alabama spent through the ETF in 2008, adjusted for inflation. Next year’s projected gains will not come close to offsetting recession-era declines.

Poverty, hunger remain challenges for K-12 schools, superintendent says

K-12 schools need $245 million, or 6 percent, more money next year, state school Superintendent Tommy Bice said. That increase would allow the state to hire an additional 450 middle school teachers to help reduce the dropout rate by keeping students engaged in school at a critical age, Bice said. The money also would help the state address other education needs, Bice said, by boosting support for:

  • School bus services, allowing systems to replace older buses and shorten routes that have some children getting on a bus before 6 a.m.;
  • A competitive grant program to allow schools in lower-income areas to offer music and other arts programs;
  • More teachers in expanding career and technical programs;
  • Family Resource Centers that serve the families of public schoolchildren;
  • Distance learning and the Alabama Math, Science and Technology Initiative;
  • An expansion of the successful Alabama Reading Initiative beyond the third grade; and
  • Libraries, technology, counselors, school nurses and continuing education for teachers.

Poverty remains the greatest barrier to education in Alabama, Bice said. “Education is the only way to end intergenerational poverty,” he said. Nearly every local school superintendent in the state attended in support of Bice’s presentation.

Child hunger is a major problem for Alabama’s schools, Bice said, and recent reductions in federal food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps) have made the problem even more serious. Nearly two-thirds of Alabama schoolchildren now qualify for free lunches, Bice said, a 4 percent increase in only one year. All but two school systems in the state provide breakfast, and more than four out of five children who eat breakfast at school qualify for free breakfasts, Bice said. The prevalence of hunger increasingly is leading schools to provide meals for children in the summer, as well as during the school year.

Alabama’s K-12 schools still are finding success despite chronic underfunding, Bice said. The state’s graduation rate has climbed to 80 percent for the first time ever, he said, an increase of 5 percentage points in one year. High schools also are expanding their collaborations with nearby community colleges, Bice said.

Pre-K, 2-year colleges, universities also request funding increases

Other presenters made the case Tuesday for more money for early childhood education and higher education in Alabama next year. Jenna Ross, director of the Office of School Readiness, asked for more support for the state’s highly touted pre-K programs. High-quality pre-K education closes the achievement gap for low-income students, Ross said. It also increases reading and math scores, decreases school absences, and reduces referrals to special education services, she said.

Mark Heinrich, chancellor of the state’s two-year college system, requested legislative support to expand a GED preparation program to help educate the 479,000 Alabama workers who do not have a high school degree or GED. Another priority for the system is to expand dual enrollment programs between high schools and community colleges, Heinrich said. He also urged an expansion of prison education programs, which he said have been shown to reduce recidivism rates significantly.

Lawmakers should try to restore universities to their 2008 state funding levels next year, said Robert Witt, chancellor of the University of Alabama System. Median tuition at the state’s public universities has increased sharply in recent years amid declining state funding.

The Legislature began the 2014 regular session Tuesday. Lawmakers will return Wednesday for the second meeting day of the session, which is expected to last until early April.

By Carol Gundlach, policy analyst. Communications director Chris Sanders contributed to this report. Posted Jan. 14, 2014.