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'The Best': $2.4-Billion Budget for Alabama Schools Gets a Go-Ahead

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Gov. Guy Hunt of Alabama has signed a bill earmarking $2.4 billion for precollegiate education--the largest amount ever provided by the state for its schools in a single fiscal year.

But a school-reform package that he had proposed has been killed by a House committee and is not expected to re-emerge in the waning days of the legislature's special session.

A battle over Mr. Hunt's reform bill had helped prevent passage of the budget measure during the regular session that ended in May, forcing schools to open this fall without state funding for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. (See Education Week, May 18, 1988.)

The House and Senate, however, voted unanimously to approve the education budget during the special session, approving $93 million for a 7.5 percent pay raise for teachers and increasing spending for textbooks, school buses, maintenance, and instructional supplies.

The state's general-fund budget, which also stalled during the regular session, was still under consideration last week.

Mr. Hunt said he decided to sign the education-spending measure despite having reservations about some of its provisions.

"This education budget is probably the best we've ever had in the history of education in this state," Mr. Hunt told reporters at a signing ceremony. "I'm very proud that the growth in our economy allows us to pump more money into the classroom for textbooks and the children of this state."

Wins and Losses

Terry Abbott, the Governor's press secretary, cited a number of reservations Mr. Hunt had about the measure he signed into law.

For example, Mr. Abbott said, the Governor would have preferred to see more of the funds directed to classrooms rather than for "discretionary" spending. The budget includes $4.3 million to allow the state education department to address "critical needs" that Mr. Hunt had not sought. In addition, he said, Mr. Hunt had backed only a 5 percent pay raise for teachers.

Mr. Abbott also noted that the Governor had proposed setting aside $42 million in reserve to prevent education funds from having to be prorated in the event of a revenue shortfall. The legislature voted to set aside only $21 million.

Bowing to pressure from Mr. Hunt, however, the Senate passed a resolution putting local education officials on notice that some $146 million provided under the bill should be considered "one time only" money.

State officials said the extra funds were made available as a result of federal tax-code changes, larger-than-anticipated tax collections, and a court ruling that barred the state from using education appropriations for noneducation projects.

Without the caveat, Mr. Hunt had argued, education officials might have built those funds into their operating budgets, which could force the state to prorate the education budget in leaner economic times.

The new education budget increases state aid to schools by $315 million over this year's level; boosts funding for transportation by $5 million; doubles the allocation for instructional supplies, from $11 million to $22 million; and adds $10 million for school maintenance. It also provides sufficient funds to reduce the pupil-to-teacher ratio in kindergarten to 17 to 1, as required under a new state law.

Educators Pleased

The spending plan "essentially meets the expectations we had for getting a good budget adopted," said Paul Hubbert, executive secretary of the Alabama Education Association. "All segments of education are reasonably satisfied."

"Increases have been targeted for critical areas," added Sally Howell, director of public relations for the Alabama Association of School Boards. "We're extremely pleased with the budget."

Accountability on Hold

Lawmakers did not appear likely last week to act on a school "accountability" bill that was proposed by Mr. Hunt and passed by a Senate panel but killed in a House committee.

Earlier in the special session, the Governor had removed the bill's most controversial element--the creation of an independent state commission to monitor public schools--in an attempt to improve its chances of passage.

But some educators said the watered-down version of the measure mirrored policies that had already been adopted by the state board of education, and therefore was not necessary.

"It appeared that the Governor was hell-bent on passing something," Mr. Hubbert said.

Mr. Abbott noted, however, that Mr. Hunt was likely to reintroduce the accountability bill in the next legislative session.

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