By TODD STACY, Alabama Daily News
There was a lot of drama toward the end of the recently-adjourned regular session of the Alabama Legislature, mostly over how to handle the infusion of $1.8 billion in federal coronavirus relief money. In the end, cooler heads prevailed, the money appears to have ended up where it needed to go and no one was worse for wear, save for some bruised egos, but that’s politics.
Drama always steals the headlines, and this situation was no different. However, perhaps we all should have been paying more attention to the budgets lawmakers pieced together successfully and passed almost unanimously during a pandemic. Approving two state budgets – the General Fund and the Education Trust Fund – is the primary constitutional responsibility of the Legislature every year. In fact, the state constitution puts procedural mechanisms in place that make it difficult to advance any other bill through the House or Senate before the budgets are sent to the governor. This year that responsibility became more of a challenge than usual when the coronavirus outbreak brought the session to a screeching halt. As usual, lawmakers were taking their time in crafting the budgets and hadn’t even planned on discussing them in committee until after legislative spring break, which began March 12. That turned out to be the longest spring break ever when, except for some scattered meetings required to make procedural changes, the Legislature would not meet again as a full, functioning branch until May 4.
When they finally did reconvene, masked and socially-distanced as best they could be, only the budgets, a $1.25 billion bond issue for school capital improvements and local legislation would be considered during an eerie, truncated last two weeks of session. The reason why local legislation was allowed is cities and counties had already spent money doing the required advertising of those bills, which they would have to do all over again if the bills died. Plus, local bills are non-controversial 99% of the time. Some lawmakers wanted bills on larger issues considered, but in the end that wasn’t allowed because once you make an exception for one person’s bill, everyone will insist on the same for theirs, and everything breaks down.
We were told the two budgets would be “bare bones,” with original estimates showing the state could lose as much as $1 billion in revenue from the outbreak and resulting economic slowdown. However, what came about were two budgets that, while disappointing based on the giant increases most expected in February, were still record amounts for the state. Originally, Gov. Kay Ivey proposed a General Fund budget, which pays for non-education state agencies and services, of $2.5 billion. The one she signed into law this week was $2.3 billion. For the education budget, Ivey originally proposed $7.5 billion that would go toward schools, teachers and higher education. The corona-vised budget she signed into law was about $7.3 billion. Again, both budgets represent the most the state has ever appropriated.
Perhaps the most noticeable loss was the lack of pay increases for teachers and state employees, which Ivey and the Legislature had planned for before the outbreak. That’s a bummer, to be sure, especially on the education side. I grew up during a time when Alabama was usually last in the region or close to it when it came to teacher salaries. Now, we are at the top in the Southeast or close to it, and we need to keep climbing.
There were some real bright spots in this year’s budgets that we mustn’t overlook just because of the strange circumstances of the session. If anything, these successes were harder-won and should be celebrated all the more. Let’s take a look at these bright spots, beginning with the Education Trust Fund.
First Class Pre-K
This might be Alabama’s most celebrated program due to the fact that it has been ranked first in the nation for quality 14 years running. In that way, First Class Pre-K is like Alabama football. Once it started winning awards, it suddenly gained a lot more fans. I remember a time when that wasn’t the case. Back in 2007 when I worked for former Gov. Bob Riley, he made the first big push to expand the pre-K program and even cleverly branded it “First Class,” but the road wasn’t easy. In fact, when we held an event launching the expansion push at a pre-K site in Tuscaloosa, the state representative whose district we came to didn’t even attend the press conference. His name was Robert Bentley and he, like every other lawmaker toeing the line for the Alabama Education Association, was opposed to expanding pre-K at the expense of a larger teacher salary increase. Riley got some of his expansion money out of pure force of personality, and eventually Bentley saw the light when he became governor. Since then, First Class has seen major funding increases most every year because, while we may be first for quality, we lag behind in allowing more children to access life changing early childhood education. This year’s $6 million increase for pre-K isn’t even a fourth of what most wanted, but it will mean another 55 classrooms will be open this coming school year, bringing the percentage of students served up to 38% and closer to the state’s goal of 70%. A hearty congratulations is in order for all involved, including Secretary of Early Childhood Education Jeana Ross, who is retiring after eight years of ably leading Alabama’s pre-K program.
The same studies that show quality pre-K can improve education outcomes also show that those gains can be quickly lost if students don’t continue to grow in their learning. There’s no question that the biggest obstacle for that in Alabama is children falling behind on their ability to read and comprehend. Children who do not read at grade level by fourth grade are unlikely to graduate, which is why Alabama passed a literacy law last year with a renewed focus on early reading, identification of reading problems in students, and stronger preparation for teachers. And, yes, students are required to read on grade level before being promoted to fourth grade, an approach other states have taken with success to show for it. However, this program will not work without proper funding, and the Legislature delivered with a full $27 million appropriation that will fund summer reading camps, regional literary specialists and special support to the lowest performing schools.
The relatively small $500,000 appropriation to Alabama Family Central for at-home learning never would have happened but for the coronavirus outbreak. Two months ago, parents statewide suddenly became part-time educators, any many are simply ill-equipped for the job. Alabama lawmakers, including Sens. Vivian Figures, D-Mobile, and Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, were looking to set aside some funding to help parents access the right resources to prepare them to be more involved in continuing their children’s education from home. Instead of re-inventing the wheel, they turned to Alabama Family Central, which is a one-stop-shop website currently in the works where parents will be able to access useful information. The Alabama Partnership for Children has been working with myriad state agencies to include the useful information and will now be adding more resources for parent instruction. The legislative appropriation will also help market the service to parents statewide. If we end up in another pandemic shutdown – or even if we don’t – this collaboration will have been well worth it.
Of course, there are many other positive aspects of a $7.3 billion education budget, and these are just some of the bright spots worth highlighting. It’s also worth pointing out that this year’s positive outcome would not have been possible without conservative budgeting and implementation of the Rolling Reserve Act nine years ago, something House education budget committee chairman Bill Poole, R-Tuscaloosa, made clear when first presenting his budget plan. Poole, his fellow lawmakers and the number crunchers at the Legislative Service Agency and the Department of Finance all deserve a pat on the back for crafting a workable budget amid challenging circumstances.
Todd Stacy is the publisher of the Alabama Daily News. He previously spent 15 years working in politics and government at the state and federal levels. Email him at [email protected].