Alabama children who entered first grade in 2008 will get their high school diplomas next year. And they’ll graduate from an education system that still gets less state support than it did when they were first learning how to add and subtract.
The $7.1 billion Education Trust Fund (ETF) budget that the Alabama Senate passed 28-2 Thursday contains substantial funding increases for K-12 schools, two-year colleges and four-year universities. (Read the excellent coverage from AL.com’s Trisha Powell Crain and the Montgomery Advertiser’s Brian Lyman for the full details.) The budget’s sponsor, Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, called it “the largest ETF budget in history.”
In terms of raw dollar amounts, that’s true. But it’s not the full story. To compare funding across the years on an apples-to-apples basis, you need to adjust for inflation. And adjusted for inflation, Alabama’s education funding is still much lower than it was in 2008, before the Great Recession hammered state revenues.
The math: ETF increases aren’t keeping up with inflation
Alabama allocated $6.7 billion to the ETF in 2008, which is equivalent to $7.8 billion in today’s dollars. That means the Senate’s $7.1 billion budget for next year still would be 8.6% below the ETF’s 2008 level.
The story is similar for both K-12 and higher education, both of which are on track to fall far short of their inflation-adjusted 2008 funding levels. Under the Senate budget, K-12 schools would get 6.9% less than they did in 2008, while higher education funding would be 17.2% below where it was that year.
Even so, the 2020 Senate budget would be a move in the right direction. This plan would provide $4.9 billion for K-12 schools and $1.9 billion for higher education. Those amounts would be 6.8% and 10% increases, respectively, over this year’s allocations. That is significant, praiseworthy progress toward returning to 2008 levels.
But it’s also important not to look at 2008 through rose-colored glasses. Though that budget was the ETF’s recent high-water mark, it still didn’t invest adequately in a range of important services. State officials at the time identified hundreds of millions of dollars of unmet needs in reading and math education, distance learning, need-based tuition assistance and other areas. As time has passed and inflation has continued to outpace state funding increases, Alabama’s unmet educational needs have only grown.
How Alabama can fund needed investments
Our state’s education funding isn’t an uncontrollable force of nature like the weather. Policy choices determine the amount of money that Alabama raises – or doesn’t raise – for education. And lawmakers have a range of choices to bring in more money for investments in our schools, colleges and universities.
One option would be to modernize Alabama’s income tax rates, which haven’t changed since 1935. The state’s 5% top rate kicks in starting at just $3,000 of taxable income. That means the marginal rate that multimillionaires pay is no higher than the one that applies to many families who struggle to make ends meet.
Another approach would be to close tax loopholes that disproportionately benefit large corporations and wealthy households. Alabama’s deduction for federal income taxes (FIT) is one example of that kind of skewed tax break. For those who earn $30,000 a year, the FIT deduction saves them about $27 on average. But for the top 1% of taxpayers, it’s worth an average of more than $11,000 a year.
Ending the FIT deduction would raise $719 million a year. That’s money Alabama could use to invest in education, end the state sales tax on groceries and take other steps to make life better for everyday folks.
Budget and tax decisions reflect what we value as a society. Alabama could continue to cling to a tax system that delivers lavish tax breaks to wealthy people while making it harder for struggling families to get ahead. Or our state could choose instead to prioritize stronger investments in education, health care and other services that benefit everyone.