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Bill would change school funding to help growing systems

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

Alabama lawmakers will try again next session on a bill to change how growing K-12 schools are funded, taking some burden off of local systems to pay for additional students.

Under current law, school systems receive a per-pupil allocation from the state based on prior year enrollments.

Senate Bill 9 would change the Foundation Program funding formula to account for enrollment increases, projecting growth based on the previous two years’ enrollment growth for students attending schools in person.

“What it does in growing school districts across the state is project out what the growth will be, instead of relying on the current system of using current units to fund that at the end of the year,” bill sponsor Sen. Chris Elliott, R-Daphne, said. “It projects out what your growth is likely to be and funds those students at the beginning of the fiscal year.”

Growth attributable to full-time virtual students will be funded at a rate determined by the State Department of Education based on the average cost to districts of educating a full-time virtual student beginning in fiscal year 2022.

Elliott had the same bill in the spring session, it cleared the Senate education budget committee with bi-partisan support and a 12-0 vote, but never got a vote on the Senate floor before concerns about COVID-19 shut down much of the session.

“It’s disappointing that it got stuck in COVID,” Elliott said. “… But it’s pre-filed now. I wanted to make sure that people had an opportunity to look at it ahead of time, ask questions and get comfortable with it.”

In the spring, State Superintendent Eric Mackey and several education groups spoke in favor of the bill. Mackey in March said the state’s growing systems are often crowded, with “diluted services” because state funding hasn’t kept up with growth.

Last week, Mackey said the Alabama State Department of Education is “absolutely” in favor of the bill.

“We fully support this measure and are glad Sen. Elliott has taken the lead in this effort to balance funding for growing school systems without hurting those that are shrinking,” Mackey said.

Elliot said his formula change “only looks forward” so it won’t penalize systems with declining enrollments.

“Those districts that have declining enrollment really have enough issues,” Elliott said. “And we don’t want to penalize them, they’re doing what they can do with what they’ve got.”

Ryan Hollingsworth, executive director of the State Superintendents of Alabama, said he hadn’t yet seen Elliott’s newly filed bill, but knows school leaders in growing systems are concerned about how funds are now distributed.

“Our current funding system uses ‘current units’ money to help with covering teacher units for districts that are experiencing growth,” Hollingsworth said. “This current funding allocation does not come close to covering the actual cost of additional teacher units required in growing systems.”

Elliott said 59 school systems would have benefited this year from his bill had it become law.

“There were just under 6,500 students last year that did not receive funding in the district in which they attended,” Elliott said. “That’s a lot of kids that received zero state funding in the district in which they attended and that’s a real big problem for fast-growing districts in particular.”

The 2021 session begins Feb. 3.

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