Do Not Mess With School Funds, Alabama Schools Chief Warns Lawmakers

By Andrew Ujifusa — August 11, 2015 3 min read
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If you think state education budgets are safe once lawmakers shut down their regular legislative sessions, think again.

Alabama lawmakers are trying to pass a general fund budget for fiscal 2016 that addresses a budget shortfall, but so far they haven’t succeeded. The last attempt to pass just such a budget failed on Aug. 10. That means yet another special session is in the cards. The state’s fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

It’s important to remember that Alabama is one of a handful of states that has an education budget, called the Education Trust Fund in Alabama, that’s separate from the general fund budget. But that doesn’t mean the Education Trust Fund is safe from the wrangling over the general fund that has the two chambers of the legislature trading barbs.

One of the proposals put forward in the first special session was a senate bill that would have cut 4 to 5 percent, or $250 million, out of the Education Trust Fund. That triggered a series of sharp responses from state Superintendent Tommy Bice, who didn’t like the idea that lawmakers might subordinate education funds for other supposedly more important budget needs:

That plan, like others designed to get a state budget passed, ultimately fell short.

When I asked Bice what such a cut would have meant for his agency and for schools, he said that bus transportation and class sizes in particular would have taken a big hit. (About 56 percent of students in the state, he noted, rely on buses to get to school.) And he also warned that arts and other auxiliary programs at schools would have suffered further setbacks.

Bice added that students and parents in the state are already faced with having to raise money on their own to support their schooling.

“We don’t want to have to sell any more cookie dough so that kids can go to school,” he told me.

He noted that while the state’s basic K-12 funding formula is currently being shortchanged by $350-400 million, he doesn’t think that the state’s funding situation can or should be fixed in just one year. He thinks a three-year plan to shore up the trust fund is both responsible while also helpful to local districts.

“Our locals are still picking up part of the state tab,” Bice said.

For the next school year, during the regular legislative session, the Education Trust Fund was funded at $5.9 billion by state lawmakers, a slight increase from last year’s spending level, according to Bice. Increases totaling $30 million went to notable items such as textbooks and transportation.

The political environment for the budget negotiations in general is tough, Bice added, because “most people who have been elected to the legislature ran on: no new taxes, no new revenue.” GOP Gov. Robert Bentley has proposed tax increases to help shore up the budget, but the Republicans in control of the state legislature have refused to sign onto that plan.

Many state education budgets continue their slow recovery after the Great Recession ended in 2009, but many are still below their pre-recession levels. In fact, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which is critical of K-12 cuts in states, as of last year Alabama had the second-biggest drop-off in K-12 per-student spending between 2008 and 2014 after adjusting for inflation.

And as the recent political battle in Alabama shows, education budgets aren’t immune from thorny, broader budget negotiations.

Photo: State Superintendent of Education Dr. Tommy Bice talks with lawmakers at the Alabama Statehouse in Montgomery, Ala., in 2013. Dave Martin/AP-File

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.