Ala. Special Session Yields Education Spending Agreement

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In a special session late last week, the Alabama legislature passed a $3.7 billion education budget that would boost spending to help schools reduce classroom sizes and pay for rising transportation costs.

The House passed the bill on a 69-31 vote Sept. 4. The Senate approved the measure later that day by a 32-2 margin.

But even as the final votes were being cast, the bill had amassed plenty of critics who argued that the plan shortchanges the state's overall commitment to education by cutting technology funds and failing to add enough money to Alabama's basic-foundation program for K-12 spending.

The legislature was forced to meet in a 12-day special session after Gov. Fob James Jr., a Republican, vetoed the education budget, as well as the state's general-fund budget, in May.

"We have a governor who says we have enough money for public education, but evidently he has his head in the sand," said Democratic Rep. Paul Parker, the chairman of the House education committee.

But Mr. James said that the budget he vetoed called for too much spending on pet projects and not enough on prisons and other crucial areas. The general-fund plan was still in a conference committee as of press time. The governor was poised to sign the new education bill last week, however, which was sent to his office immediately after it was passed.

"As the governor said, it's about 99 percent of what we asked for," said Alfred Sawyer, Mr. James' spokesman. "He will definitely sign it."

The new fiscal year begins Oct. 1. Under the special-session bill, state spending on K-12 education would rise 5 percent, to $2.5 billion, in fiscal 1998, up from $2.4 billion in 1997. And, after two years of static funding, higher education spending would rise by 1 percent, to $975 million.

"It doesn't mean we got everything we wanted," said Susan Portera, a budget specialist with the state department of education. "But we feel it's the best we can get given the state's revenue projections."

The added K-12 revenue would increase the amount of funding in the state's basic-foundation program for schools by $144 million, to $2.5 billion.

The bulk of that increase would help pay for up to 900 new teachers as part of an effort to lower classroom sizes in grades K-12. The state's foundation program includes funding for 44,085 full-time teacher and administrative posts.

State schools Superintendent Ed Richardson had lobbied to reduce maximum class sizes from 25 to 22 students in kindergarten, from 28 to 25 pupils in grades 1-3, and from 32 to 29 youngsters in grades 4-12.

It was not clear last week how far the new spending would go toward achieving those goals.

"There is the intent to reduce class sizes, but I'm not sure that all of that will go to new teacher positions," said Susan Rountree, the spokeswoman for the Alabama Association of School Boards.

Ms. Rountree added that the increase in the foundation program was deceptive because budget writers included $26 million in funding for at-risk students in that total. Funding for at-risk students, which was also $26 million in the current fiscal year, was a separate line item in the fiscal 1997 budget.

At 75 percent, Alabama has one of the highest shares of state K-12 spending in the nation. The state also pays 100 percent of school transportation costs. And funding for that line item would increase under the House-passed bill to $153 million, from $137 million last year. But because of paltry local contributions due to low property wealth and an unwillingness to raise local taxes, overall spending is among the nation's lowest.

Falling Short

Budget critics charged that the spending measure had other holes. For example, the state's school-technology allocation, which is calculated and distributed based on the number of Alabama teachers, would fall from $200 to $75 per teacher.

Mr. Parker defended that change. He said the legislature plans to pass a statewide technology-bond initiative during another special session this fall.

Teacher training funds also were cut in half, from $120 per teacher to $60. And all of the money would be earmarked for regional in-service centers. Last year, the staff-development funds were split between the centers and local school districts.

School officials argue that the shift to the regional centers takes away local control of teacher training. Coupled with an unwillingness to spend more on K-12 schools, that could spell disaster for the state's ongoing move to tougher standards and graduation requirements, some critics say.

Said Ms. Rountree, "It's a train wreck waiting to happen if we don't take time to address the needs of kids already in the pipeline with academic problems."

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