States

In Ala. Budget Crisis, It’s Schools vs. Colleges

By Bess Keller — March 07, 2001 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

A compromise between Alabama’s K-12 schools and the state’s higher education community failed to gel in the legislature late last week, leaving colleges and universities more likely to bear the brunt of more than $260 million in mandated budget cuts this fiscal year.

Earlier in the week, the higher education institutions escaped—at least temporarily—an even bigger hit when the Alabama Supreme Court stayed a lower court order that had blocked cuts to almost all K-12 expenditures. The court order resulted from a lawsuit brought by the Alabama Association of School Boards and individual school districts.

The stay was granted after an appeal from Gov. Donald Siegelman and several universities. The suit is now before the state high court.

Those events widened the rift between the state’s two education sectors, which share a trust fund fed by sales and income taxes. When revenues from those taxes sag, as they started to do at the end of last year, state law requires proportionate cuts to education spending.

Faced with controversy over the reductions he announced at the beginning of last month, most notably the lawsuit, the Democratic governor called the legislature into special session on Feb. 22 to deal with the education funding crisis. At the same time, Gov. Siegelman put forward a package of bills that he said would moderate the effect of the $266 million in cuts he was obliged to make to the combined $4.3 billion budget for K-12 and higher education.

When that package stalled last week in the legislature, which is controlled by Democrats, the governor proposed a modification to it designed to soften the blow to the state’s colleges and universities. That attempted compromise would have provided higher education institutions with a state bond issue of $60 million to make up for some of the money they would lose under his budget-cutting plan.

“This plan is fair to K-12 and it is fair to higher education,” the governor argued at the time.

But university presidents rejected that modified proposal, complaining that bonds would unwisely mortgage their future operations, because the money would have to be paid back. As a result, lawmakers declined to take up the proposal.

The special legislative session was set to end on March 5. The governor said last week that if the session closed without legislative action on the education cuts, he would carry them out according to an opinion of the state attorney general rendered at the governor’s request last week.

The opinion states that salaries of all K-12 public school employees must be protected from any cutbacks, an interpretation that would have the effect of deepening the reductions to colleges and universities.

If the state winds up implementing cuts conforming to that opinion, the nearly $3 billion that the state is slated to spend on K-12 education in the current fiscal year would fall by about 4 percent. Higher education, meanwhile, would suffer cuts totaling roughly 11.5 percent of its state funding, state officials say.

Sharing the Pain

Under the proportional cuts required by current law, the K-12 and higher education sectors would have faced equal reductions totaling 6.2 percent of their budgets.

Even though lawmakers failed to embrace the modified version of the governor’s plan, as of late last week they still had before them his original Feb. 22 package. Under that plan, K-12 education would be cut by an estimated 4.4 percent while colleges and universities would undergo a projected 9.9 percent reduction.

Some legislative leaders last week acknowledged that the battle between advocates for the two education sectors had been fierce.

“The two groups are basically at each other’s throats,” said Jeffrey B. Woodard, the chief of staff for House Speaker Seth Hammett, a Democrat who is also the president of a state community college. “The influence of higher ed is stronger in the Senate,” he added.

Others have noted that House members have often lined up behind the Alabama Education Association, the National Education Association affiliate that represents most of the state’s public school teachers. In the debates, many House members have held that colleges and universities have more money in reserve and greater flexibility in raising and spending money than public schools do, and therefore can better absorb short- term cuts.

Even the more moderate cuts “stand to cripple K-12, and we are already one of the most poorly funded school systems in the country,” said Susan Salter, the spokeswoman for the Alabama Association of School Boards. She added that districts are under pressure to meet academic standards that the state has raised in the past several years.

But a representative of the state’s public colleges suggested last week that they could ill afford to bear the brunt of the cuts.

Lawsuit Threatened

Proposals to safeguard K- 12 employees from salary cuts “leave our instructors in an unprotected position, but put K-12 teachers in a protected area,” said Gordon Stone, the executive director of the Higher Education Partnership, which represents all 15 of Alabama’s public colleges and universities. He said the state’s colleges and universities would file suit if the state carries out the cuts according to the attorney general’s opinion.

Meanwhile, Sandra Sims-deGraffenried, the executive director of the school boards association, laid the blame for the legislative impasse on a lack of planning. “We didn’t have a game plan that was firm and set,” she said, “and as a result, we’ve had lots of filibuster, controversy, and somewhat of a tug of war.”

The shortfall problem is not likely to correct itself in the near future. The latest revenue figures show two major components of the education fund—collections from the sales tax and corporate income taxes—down 3 percent compared with a year ago. The fund also draws on individual income taxes, which were up over a year ago, but which generally show the effects of an economic slowdown later than the other two revenue sources.

Related Tags:

A version of this article appeared in the March 07, 2001 edition of Education Week as In Ala. Budget Crisis, It’s Schools vs. Colleges

Events

Jobs Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
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.
Sponsor
Reading & Literacy Webinar
Science of Reading: Emphasis on Language Comprehension
Dive into language comprehension through a breakdown of the Science of Reading with an interactive demonstration.
Content provided by Be GLAD
English-Language Learners Webinar English Learners and the Science of Reading: What Works in the Classroom
ELs & emergent bilinguals deserve the best reading instruction! The Reading League & NCEL join forces on best practices. Learn more in our webinar with both organizations.

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 Q&A How Districts Can Navigate Tricky Questions Raised by Parents' Rights Laws
Where does a parent's authority stop and a school's authority begin? A constitutional law scholar weighs in.
6 min read
Illustration of dice with arrows and court/law building icons: conceptual idea of laws and authority.
Andrii Yalanskyi/iStock/Getty
States What 2024 Will Bring for K-12 Policy: 5 Issues to Watch
School choice, teacher pay, and AI will likely dominate education policy debates.
7 min read
The U.S. Capitol is seen in Washington, Monday, Feb. 6, 2023. President Joe Biden on Tuesday night will stand before a joint session of Congress for the first time since voters in the midterm elections handed control of the House to Republicans.
The rising role of artificial intelligence in education and other sectors will likely be a hot topic in 2024 at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, as well as in state legislatures across the country.
Mariam Zuhaib/AP
States How a Parents' Rights Law Halted a Child Abuse Prevention Program
State laws that have passed as part of the parents' rights movement have caused confusion and uncertainty over what schools can teach.
7 min read
People hold signs during a protest at the state house in Trenton, N.J., Monday, Jan. 13, 2020. New Jersey lawmakers are set to vote Monday on legislation to eliminate most religious exemptions for vaccines for schoolchildren, as opponents crowd the statehouse grounds with flags and banners, including some reading "My Child, My Choice."
People hold signs during a protest at the state house in Trenton, N.J., on Jan. 13, 2020, opposing legislation to eliminate most religious exemptions for vaccines for schoolchildren. In North Carolina, a bill passed to protect parents' rights in schools caused uncertainty that led two districts to pause a child sex abuse prevention program out of fear it would violate the new law.
Seth Wenig/AP
States More States Are Creating a 'Portrait of a Graduate.' Here's Why
A portrait of a graduate is a guiding document outlining a vision of what it means to be a successful student.
8 min read
Image of attributes of a graduate.
Parker Shatkin for Education Week with iStock/Getty