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Literacy education, mental health services big requests in 2021 budget

By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – More funding for early literacy efforts and mental health services were among the Alabama State Department of Education’s requests in the state’s 2021 education budget.

The state’s education leaders presented their budget requests to lawmakers on Wednesday in advance of the the legislative session that starts Feb. 4.

One of the major asks from State Education Department Superintendent Eric Mackey was nearly $50 million to implement the Alabama Literacy Act, including $21 million to train every K-3 teacher in the state in the science of reading to help students be reading proficiently by the fourth grade.

It was the largest request from Mackey but he said it would be a one-time cost.

“We’re partnering with our colleges of education and our hope is that we won’t have to train any of the students coming from an Alabama college and only have to train people who are coming to us from out of state,” Mackey said.

Mackey also asked for $18.5 million more to implement the summer reading programs for any of the K-3 students identified with a reading deficiency, as laid out in the Alabama Literacy Act.

Lawmakers approved the act in 2019. It provides regional literacy specialists to the lowest-performing 5% schools in the state, as well as providing summer reading camps and holding back third graders who aren’t reading on grade level. It goes into effect in the 2021-2022 school year.

Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, was the primary sponsor of the Alabama Literacy Act and said she Wednesday she appreciated seeing where the funds are going and what is needed.

“I look forward to seeing how exactly it’s going to be used toward summer school spending, exactly what we could do now to speed up our teachers through professional development,” Collins said.

About $7.7 million is requested to improve mental health services in K-12 schools, including more money for a program with the Alabama Department of Mental Health to provide more full-time therapists.

There are currently 72 school systems participating, but an $1 million increase would allow for 20 more systems to join.

The General Fund budget is the Department of Mental Health’s primarily source of state fundings, but Mackey told Alabama Daily News he thinks some Education Trust Fund spendings is warranted for mental health services in schools. This year, $1 million was allocated in the education budget for a school-based mental health collaboration.

“It will certainly be up to the legislature and the governor if they want to take that out of the ETF, but I think there’s a lot of discussion about that because if these folks, even if they’re working for the Department of Mental Health, if they are full time, 100% working with children in our schools and taking that burden off of our teachers then we certainly have to consider that,” Mackey said.

Mackey also asked for funding to supply each school system with a mental health service coordinator. The coordinators are meant to provide some relief for teachers or school counselors who may be dealing with an overwhelming amount of mental health issues in their classrooms.

These service coordinators wouldn’t have to be a licensed therapist but could have experience in the family needs area, like a social worker or a retired teacher. Mackey asked for $5.6 million to fund 142 coordinators.

Department of Mental Health Commissioner Lynn Beshear said having the service coordinators will provide some much-needed help in the classrooms.

“As we know, learning is dependent upon the emotional and mental health of the teacher in the room,” Beshear said.

Early Childhood Education Secretary Jeana Ross did not have a specific budget request, but offered lawmakers a detailed report on the benefits of the state’s award-winning First Class Pre-K program. Investments in pre-K education help students become more proficient at math and reading, and less likely to need special education or have behavioral issues, Ross said. The Legislature has granted funding increases for First Class Pre-K each year since the program’s inception in 2005, including a $25 million boost last year.

The Alabama Commission on Higher Education asked for a $73 million increase for four-year universities. In total, ACHE is asking for a 6.8% increase over the current year’s funding in hopes of getting back to pre-2008 funding levels.

The commission also asked for $10 million for performance-based funding in higher education. Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, said he is in favor of creating a formula for outcome-based funding for universities as a way to improve performance.

“We give these intuitions all this funding, and then you see their graduation rate is 20% and people are not graduating in four years with their cohort,” Orr told Alabama Daily News. “So the question is how can we improve that and outcome-based funding is how you do that. Tie some incentives to funding, so if you increase your retention rate then you get some additional funding.”

The Alabama Community College System is asking for a $35 million increase in operations and maintenance funding for its nearly two dozen schools and a $50 million increase to expand workforce development capabilities relating to skills training and career and technical skills education. Chancellor Jimmy Baker also asked for $4.2 million increase to help expand correctional and post-correctional education services, which he said will help reduce prison recidivism.

“We must train those people and give them an opportunity so that when they walk out they won’t resort to other kinds of activities that will result getting them back in prison,” Baker said.

The 2021 education budget is expected to be larger than this year’s $7.1 billion, but exact amounts aren’t yet available. The House Ways and Means Education chair Rep. Bill Poole, R-Tuscaloosa, said that there wasn’t any one particular funding ask that he wants to support over others yet.

“Certainly the requests exceed capacity so I think there were some well founded requests, there are others that I have a lot of questions about on how to prioritize those and focus on needs and gaps around the state, so I don’t have any preconceived conclusions at this point,” Poole said.

The legislative session begins on Feb. 4.

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