Education Budget Faces Final Hurdle in Conference Committee

After passing both the Alabama House and Senate with only small differences between the two versions, the FY 2011-2012 education budget will soon go to a conference committee where six members – three from each chamber – will try to hammer out a final version.

Although Gov. Robert Bentley took a different approach when he offered his proposed education budget at the start of the session, lawmakers in both chambers voted to save nearly $75 million in next year’s cash-strapped schools budget by cutting about 1,200 teacher jobs and increasing class sizes slightly. Gov. Bentley had proposed keeping all state-funded teaching jobs, but State Superintendent Dr. Joe Morton, and many local superintendents, said the governor’s plan would severely underfund transportation needs, such as bus driver salaries and vehicle maintenance, and leave schools far short on funding for other essential operating costs, such as utilities and support workers.

Reminding lawmakers that state education spending has declined by $1.4 billion during the past three years, Morton said the compounded effect of three straight years of proration has left schools with no room to cut. He also has said the one-time reduction in teaching jobs will be largely absorbed through normal retirements and other means of attrition, making the measure the best of the few bad options available.

Although they include minor differences that total about $687,000, both pending versions of next year’s education budget would spend some $5.6 billion, an increase of about 4.5 percent over current Education Trust Fund spending. However, the $240 million increase is not nearly enough to replace the loss of more than $450 million in federal stimulus money no longer available after this school year.

The A+ Education Partnership is encouraged that, despite the loss of stimulus money and overall lower revenues, both versions of next year’s education budget maintain current funding levels for the Alabama Reading Initiative, the Alabama Math, Science, and Technology Initiative, Access distance learning and Advanced Placement.

In an informational packet distributed prior to the start of the legislative budget debate, A+ Education Partnership President Caroline Novak reminded members of the House and Senate education budget committees about the notable learning improvements these programs have already produced. In her message to the lawmakers, Novak called funding for programs like the Alabama Reading Initiative “smart money well spent on a proven reform strategy that continues to yield a big return on investment;” and encouraged the committee decision makers to “safeguard and build on Alabama’s recent gains in student achievement.”