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Mackey asks for $984 million in new K-12 funding, warns of federal spending drop off

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – As Alabama state leaders ramp up budget discussions, Alabama State Superintendent of Education Eric Mackey presented his department’s funding requests during a budget hearing on Thursday, asking for an additional $984 million in new funding in the next fiscal year.

Gov. Kay Ivey and lawmakers last year approved a record $8.2 billion education budget for public K-12 and higher education institutions. On Thursday, several agencies outlined their need for more money in 2024.

The largest portion of the newly requested K-12 funds, Mackey said, would be used to both increase teacher salaries and recruit new teachers amid continued staffing shortages. Teacher shortages have plagued Alabama’s public education system for years, with the state’s greatest shortage areas being in special education, early childhood and elementary teachers.

“Over 30 years in education, I never thought we would see the day where we have more money than we have people,” Mackey said. 

“When I was a principal, I had 80 teaching applicants for one opening in third grade. The trouble was I had money for maybe one and I’d like to hire three; the problem now is they have the money but can’t find the people.”

Alabama State Superintendent of Education Eric Mackey shares a presentation on his department’s 2024 budget requests to a joint legislative budget committee at the Alabama State House on Thursday.

Mackey said $264 million of the new funding would go toward adding 3,000 teaching positions across the state, as well as additional counselors and assistant principals.

“Some of our very rural communities can’t find more people to hire,” Mackey continued. “They’re even having a hard time finding teacher assistants, not just certified teachers. They can’t find teacher’s aids in some of our communities because the job market’s just so tight.”

Mackey said that the state’s public school system was short on teachers by 300 in special education, 104 in early childhood (K-3), and 183 in elementary.

The proposed budget would also raise classroom supply spending from $900 to $1,000 per teacher, add an additional $20 million toward transportation operations, allocate $24 million toward summer math camps and other math improvement initiatives stemming from the Numeracy Act.

Another hurdle facing Alabama’s public school system is the impending deadline for federal COVID-19 reliefs funds to be spent.

Federal dollars went to school districts across the country by the billions with the passage of three legislative relief packages; the CARES Act, the Appropriations Act, and the American Rescue Plan Act. Mackey said that the entirety of funds from the CARES Act have been spent, most of the funds from the Appropriations Act have either been spent or committed to be spent, but that a large portion of ARPA funds still need to be allocated.

“It’s been a struggle in many districts to spend the funds they have because one of the best ways to spend these federal funds is on people, and they can’t match people to the money,” Mackey said.

“All of our districts have spent their (CARES ACT) funds, most of the (Appropriations Act) funds are spent, it’s that third trunk of money that was approved by Congress and signed into law by President Biden in the spring of 2021 that was the largest bucket of money, and it has to be spent by next fall.”

While Mackey said he and his colleagues are diligently working with school districts to get those funds spent, he called on the U.S. Congress to extend the deadline for ARPA spending.

“We’re working with districts, we’re being proactive in trying to help them identify ways to spend the money, but we need Congress to act and extend the timeline on spending the money,” Mackey said. 

“The money needs to be spent, but what we don’t need to do is come to the last few months and buy reams of paper and just spend the money to say that we’ve spent it. We need to spend the money wisely and therefore we really need Congress to expand the timeline on spending the funds.”

Pre-K and post secondary

Lawmakers also heard from agencies representing the state’s youngest and older learners.

Barbara Cooper, Secretary of the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education, discussed the state’s goal of getting access to its award-winning pre-K program to 70% of 4-year-olds statewide. So far, it’s available to about 44%, though in 23 counties, it’s less than that.

“(Research) continues to show that children who participate in pre-K continue to be more likely to be ready for kindergarten, proficient in reading and math, less likely to be retained in a grade and chronically absent, and less likely to have disciplinary referrals or need special education services,” Cooper said.

Cooper didn’t talk specifically about money requests on Thursday. That information will be ready closer to the start of the March 7 session.

Jim Purcell, the executive director of Alabama Commission on Higher Education, presented a budget request for two and four-year colleges totaling $2.36 billion, an increase of $227 million over the current year.

Most of the increases are in response to rising costs due to inflation, deferred maintenance, personnel and increased mandatory costs related to retirement and insurance, Purcell told lawmakers.

He reminded the elected officials that Alabama institutions get more funding from student tuition than most other public colleges and universities in the nation.

“We are actually twice the national average in tuition revenue and we’re fourth in the nation, only behind Michigan, Vermont and Delaware, and I don’t think that’s where we really want to be,” Purcell said.

There is some funding for new programs in the request, including $6 million for a “Re-Engage Alabama” program to reach adults with some higher education but no degree. Purcell said that describes one in five Alabamians. The money would fund scholarships for those seeking training in high-demand jobs.

“We would fund them so they can get out in the workplace and support their families,” Purcell said. “The great news about returning adults is that they are already in Alabama, they’re committed to Alabama, they have a life here and they’re not going to migrate off like young folks have a tendency to do.”

Multiple industries and state agencies are struggling to hire workers amid the state’s record-low unemployment rate. State leaders are searching for ways to reach those not participating in the labor market.

Lawmakers also heard from Marcus Morgan, director of the Alabama Commission on Evaluation of Services. The agency was created by lawmakers in 2019 to measure the performances and outcomes of state services. To-date, several of its reports have focused on teacher recruitment and retention.

“If it can’t be measured, it can’t be improved,” Morgan told lawmakers.

Alabama Daily News’ Mary Sell contributed to this report.


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