Making the Right Investments Now Can Pay Huge Dividends for Alabama Down the Road

“You get what you pay for.”

This old adage may hold true when it comes to the investments of public dollars into education. While it takes more than money to make an education system great, it’s important to fund the things that have been proven to work.

A recent review of state budgets published by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reveals that since the Great Recession, most states that cut their education budgets have still not fully restored the funding since 2008. Alabama was identified in the report as among one of four states that suffered the deepest cuts and among the last to recover.
The real challenge, said state superintendent Dr. Tommy Bice, is that because of deep cuts from the state level, local systems are having to scrape together local funds to pay for items that used to be covered with state funds, like state-mandated transportation and instructional and teacher-training costs.

“Right now the local systems are picking up the yeoman’s share of the costs necessary to run their systems, even at the bare minimum,” said Dr. Bice during the October State Board of Education’s work session.

The highest funding level the state’s education budget has seen was in 2008, peaking at $6.7 billion. It dropped to $5.2 billion in 2010 and has since crept back up to $5.9 billion for the current school year.

“We’re still spending half a billion less than at the high-water mark, but we’re spending more than ever before for health care and retirement and transportation costs,” said Sen. Trip Pittman, R-Daphne, the chairman of the Senate Finance and Taxation Education committee. (Source: Montgomery Advertiser)

Investments in administrative costs, like teachers’ benefits and transportation, are important. But equally important are investments into the areas that directly impact student learning and achievement.

Studies continue to link economic success to smart investments made in education. Most recently, the Business Education Alliance (BEA), in partnership with the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama (PARCA), released a report linking higher graduation rates with higher economic growth.

The report, authored by PARCA with economic modeling performed by Auburn University at Montgomery Economics Professor Keivan Deravi, was commissioned by the BEA to quantify the potential benefits of Plan 2020, the Alabama State Board of Education’s strategic plan to raise the four-year graduation rate to 90% by 2020 and to ensure graduates are prepared for college and careers.

The BEA report advocates for several priorities:

  • Expanding high-quality pre-k,
  • Setting high expectations for all students,
  • Supporting continued learning for teacher and school leaders, and
  • Setting every student on a pathway to success after high school.

“Economic models prepared for this report predict that if we reach the goal by 2020, the state’s economic output will be $430 million greater that year than if our graduation rate were to remain at its current level,” the report finds.

So why wouldn’t a state that is working so hard to improve its economy choose to make investments that will make the largest impact in the future? After all, investing in education is directly investing in citizens’ opportunity potential and future contributions to the state economy.

With an average of 46 percent of total U.S. education spending coming from the state level, (that number is over 50 percent in Alabama), Michael Leachman and Chris Mai, author’s of the Center’s review, stated, “Restoring school funding should be an urgent priority. Steep state-level K-12 spending cuts have serious consequences.”

The Alabama State Board of Education had a very similar discussion in October. As they begin the tedious process of crafting the education budget for 2015-16, they must carefully consider where to spread the approximate $10.9 million* available revenue ever so thinly over the entire system. (*ALSDE preliminary estimate)

Dr. Bice shared with the Board what a fully-funded budget would look like. In other words, if Alabama were to expand to every Alabama school what has proven to work well in improving student learning and achievement, how much more would be needed? According to Dr. Bice, that dream budget would need about $293 million in available revenue.

While it would be unrealistic to make such a request in the short term, it is important to set long-term targets by creating a clear and compelling pathway for improving the education of Alabama students through wise investments.

Click here to read the full review, “Most States Still Funding School Less than Before the Recession.”

Related story:  Click here to read a previous A+ post on the economic impact of raising Alabama’s graduation rate, published by PARCA and the Business Education Alliance.