Our View: Alabama Needs to Invest in Education Up Front

Birmingham News

Story offers needed reminder that Alabama needs to invest in education up front rather than spend much more on government services down the road
Men, and women, of a certain age remember the Fram oil filter commercials from three decades ago. An actor playing a mechanic warns us we can pay him now for a new oil filter, or pay him later for a rebuilt engine.
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Later, of course, meant we would spend much, much more money. That cautionary commercial came to mind for an editorial writer of a certain age after reading a story in the Press-Register of Mobile about how Alabama has spent federal education stimulus dollars.

The agency that has gotten the most federal money isn’t Mobile County schools, which is the state’s largest school system. No, the agency receiving the largest share of federal stimulus is the Alabama Department of Corrections.

Since 2009, the U.S. Department of Education has sent more than $118 million of $1.1 billion in stimulus funding to prisons, according to a Press-Register analysis. That far surpasses Mobile County schools, at No. 2, which got almost $77 million.

The spending was legal. Governors could give up to 18 percent of the funding meant for schools to other areas, such as public safety. The Department of Corrections received 11 percent of the total.

The prison system spent the money on health care costs for 26,000 inmates, and salaries and benefits for about 4,200 corrections officers and other employees for 31/2 months, officials said.

K-12 schools spent some of the stimulus money on special education, prekindergarten, homeless education programs or schools serving mostly poor students. But the biggest part went toward saving education employees’ jobs, who otherwise would have lost them because of budget cuts.

Put into individual terms, Alabama spent about $4,500 per prisoner in education stimulus dollars — about four times the amount spent per K-12 student. Mobile County schools received $1,233 for each of its 62,000 students.

That’s not to say the money wasn’t useful, even critical, for prisons. Without it, the Department of Corrections might have asked the Legislature for permission to release inmates, said Steve Brown, the department’s associate commissioner of administration. Or, the state could have taken money from other agencies to prop up prisons’ budget.

“We would’ve had to release 40 percent of our inmates,” Brown said. “That’s not a viable option.”

He’s right about that. Still, it’s hard to argue with Baldwin County schools Superintendent Alan Lee’s reaction to prisons receiving so much money.

“If we could have had that $118 million,” he said of school systems in general, “we could’ve given the prisons less business.”

Poorly educated children are far more likely to commit crimes, live in poverty, be in prison or on public assistance, use drugs, become single parents and bear children at an early age — starting the cycle all over again with their own children.

The Press-Register story offered a needed reminder that Alabama still doesn’t pay enough now for education, and ends up paying much more later for prisons and other government services. Gov.-elect Robert Bentley and the Legislature need to come up with new, smarter strategies, especially with recession-battered budgets, to ensure taxpayers’ dollars are well-spent.

They need to buy oil filters, not rebuild engines.