Aid for Education Is in Alabama Election Spotlight

By Alan Richard — October 09, 2002 5 min read
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Predicting the outcome of Alabama’s race for governor is like calling a coin toss.

Elections 2002

Far more certain than the outcome, however, is that whoever wins—Democratic Gov. Don Siegelman or his Republican challenger, U.S. Rep. Bob Riley—must confront serious budget troubles that are bluntly hitting the state’s K-12 public schools.

And while school leaders hope that one of those men is ready to lead the state out of the ashes, they aren’t holding their breath.

“We need somebody to do the tough things. Other governors have done it in states around us—it’s our turn,” said Sandra Sims-deGraffenried, the executive director of the Alabama Association of School Boards.

It’s a disappointing situation for educators in Alabama because the state has made some progress in recent years. The state’s early-grades reading program has become a national model, but growth of the program has been hindered by budget troubles. While the state helps replace portable classrooms in almost every county with permanent structures, districts are finding it tough to keep buildings open and supplied.

The “tough things,” in Ms. Sims-deGraffenried’s view, include revising the way Alabama pays for education in the face of a legislature that has been unwilling to consider major change in state tax policies.

Frustration Grows

It’s no wonder, then, that Gov. Siegelman is making the humdrum topic of school funding his main issue. On his Web site, readers are bombarded with his four-pillar plan to raise more money for schools.

“Education is driving this race,” Mr. Siegelman said in a recent interview, claiming that the election is a referendum on whether voters are serious about improving schools. But advocates for school spending are frustrated with the governor’s rhetoric. His first term has produced some worthwhile education programs, they say, but nothing to solve the deeper budget issues.

Schools saw $266 million in midyear cuts in 2001, and general education money was held flat for fiscal 2002. More state cuts may be ahead this year.

“We [educators] have done so much, for so many, for so long, that apparently folks think we’re going to find a way to get by,” Ms. Sims-deGraffenried said.

Some education leaders in Alabama openly advocate bigger spending on schools. The debate is about how to get there.

State Superintendent of Education Ed Richardson and the state board of education are pushing a plan called Realizing Every Alabama Child’s Hopes, or REACH, which calls for up to $1.6 billion in new education spending over 10 years.

Alabama leans heavily on sales and income taxes to pay for public schools, and local school boards have no power to raise taxes. They can’t put a tax levy on the ballot without legislative permission.

Gov. Siegelman has proposed a constitutional convention to change those rules, but has found little support from lawmakers. He wants to change state tax laws, and close tax loopholes that he says help some big businesses avoid paying their fair share. He promises no general tax increase, however.

“People are making plenty of money,” he added. “They just aren’t paying taxes.”

The alternative to Gov. Siegelman doesn’t look much better to those who want a long-term solution to Alabama’s school funding problems.

Mr. Riley’s record in Congress includes votes against class-size reduction and in support of shutting down the U.S. Department of Education. His promise to make responsible reforms to Alabama’s school funding system are welcome, but his barbs about how schools waste money are not.

“The days of ‘Y’all have got plenty of money if you’d quit wasting it’ are over,” said John Draper, the executive director of the Council for Leaders in Alabama Schools, which includes more than 2,000 superintendents, principals, and other school administrators as members. “The next governor of Alabama will face that reality and needs to be prepared for it.”

According to a recent tabulation by Education Week, when adjusted for local cost of living, Alabama spent $6,652 per pupil in the 2001-02 school year, compared with a national average of $7,524.

The congressman, who did not agree to an interview, wants to appoint statewide commissions to study ways to raise school money and spend it more wisely.

Rep. Riley says in his written education plan that he’ll make public schools his highest priority. His campaign has focused more generally, however, on what the Republican says are the shortcomings of Gov. Siegelman: a lack of leadership ability and possible cronyism in granting state contracts to campaign donors.

Regional Effect

The Alabama race could help change the political hue of governors’ mansions across the South. If Alabama voters elect a Republican, they could help break the chain of Democrats who hold governors’ seats in Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, and Mississippi.

Other incumbent governors who face challenges include South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges, a Democrat who like Gov. Siegelman was elected on a promise to allow an education lottery. Voters in Mr. Hodges’ state have approved the lottery, but Alabama voters have not. (“State Voters OK More Spending for Education,” Nov. 15, 2000.)

Mr. Hodges faces a stiff challenge from former U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, who like Mr. Riley in Alabama, defeated the sitting lieutenant governor in his Republican primary. Mr. Sanford is considered formidable and favors expanding school choice through tuition vouchers and other programs.

In Alabama, Mr. Riley also supports expanding school choice, possibly including Florida-style vouchers that students in low- achieving schools could use to attend private schools, including religious ones. He and other GOP candidates aren’t emphasizing that platform, since it could play poorly with some voters, said Hastings Wyman, who monitors governors’ races as the publisher of the Southern Political Report.

Statewide races in the South are getting tougher to call, Mr. Wyman said. Democratic governors have done well lately in states that lean Republican, but a new brand of GOP governor could turn the tide again.

Meanwhile, Alabama begins a new budget year this month about $200 million in the hole, in part because legislators borrowed from a trust fund to meet last year’s budget and avoid major cuts.

“Either winner is immediately going to be faced with an education funding crisis,” said Mr. Draper of the school administrators’ group. “It’s imminent.”

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