Aid for Education Is in Alabama Election Spotlight

By Alan Richard — October 09, 2002 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.”

Related Tags:


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Profession Webinar
Professional Wellness Strategies to Enhance Student Learning and Live Your Best Life
Reduce educator burnout with research-affirmed daily routines and strategies that enhance achievement of educators and students alike. 
Content provided by Solution Tree
English-Language Learners Webinar The Science of Reading and Multilingual Learners: What Educators Need to Know
Join experts in reading science and multilingual literacy to discuss what the latest research means for multilingual learners in classrooms adopting a science of reading-based approach.
School & District Management K-12 Essentials Forum Get a Strong Start to the New School Year
Get insights and actions from Education Week journalists and expert guests on how to start the new school year on strong footing.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

States Some States Want to Lock in Universal Free School Meals as Federal Waivers End
The pandemic-era waivers let students regardless of income get free school meals and drew wide use nationally.
4 min read
Norma Ordonez places a tray of grilled cheese sandwiches into an oven to warm as she prepares take-away lunches for students kept out of class because of the coronavirus at Richard Castro Elementary School early Friday, Dec. 18, 2020, in west Denver.
Norma Ordonez places sandwiches into an oven to warm as she prepares take-away lunches for students at Richard Castro Elementary School in Denver in 2020.
David Zalubowski/AP
States Opinion Searching for Common Ground: The Parental-Rights Bill, aka the 'Don’t Say Gay’ Bill
Rick and USC dean Pedro Noguera discuss Florida's law curbing gender and sexuality talk and its impact on students, teachers, and parents.
6 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
States Texas Governor Sparks Backlash With Talk of Rolling Back Free School for Immigrant Kids
Critics assailed Republican Gov. Greg Abbott's idea as “hare-brained” and “cruel.”
Robert T. Garrett, The Dallas Morning News
5 min read
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott speaks at a news conference in Austin, Texas, on June 8, 2021.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott speaks at a news conference in Austin, Texas, on June 8, 2021.
Eric Gay/AP
States How Laws on Race, Sexuality Could Clash With Culturally Responsive Teaching
Critical race theory and culturally responsive teaching are not the same thing. But bans of one could impact the other.
7 min read
Illustration of diverse hands being raised.