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State House update: Education budget jockeying begins

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Alabama’s higher education leaders will ask for at least an 5% increasing in funding in 2021 for colleges and universities — and more for some — and additional money for low-income students, workforce development and prison education programs.

The 2020 legislative session, where the only required task is passing the state’s two budgets for 2021, is less than two months away and at least in the Education Trust Fund it looks like there will be more money for 2021.

“We expect another significant increase in the ETF, year over year,” Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, said recently. He’s chairman of the Senate education budget committee. “As a result, I would expect another round of teacher pay raises should be in order.”

The current year’s $7.1 billion education budget included a 4% raise for teachers and education employees. 

Rep. Bill Poole, R-Tuscaloosa, said 2021 projects haven’t been finalized yet, but look good.

“Our education revenues continue to perform well because the economy is performing well and unemployment is low,” Poole, the House’s education budget chairman, said.

Poole said teacher raises are a possibility.

“We’ve got a lot of needs, but we have to prioritize those needs and put our resources where can we get the maximum return on our investment,” Poole said. He said there needs to be a focus on improved outcomes, including better proficiency scores in math and reading, “which are clearly needed.”

Another expected increase for education isn’t technically in the ETF budget, but has a huge impact. The Advancement and Technology Fund is fueled by tax revenue above the previous year’s budget appropriation cap — a limit on the money lawmakers can allocate, even if the revenue is available.

This year, the Advancement and Technology Fund was about $273.6 million, nearly $200 million of which went to K-12, the rest to higher education. Next year, Orr said, about $512 million is expected to be available.

“This large amount will help schools throughout Alabama meet huge needs when it comes to capital improvements, technology upgrades and school security needs,” Orr said. 

That money is divided among K-12 systems based on enrollment and can be spent on technology, security improvements, maintenance, transportation and insurance costs.

In 2021, the ETF will also be funding the state’s new reading law. Lawmakers approved this year a bill to holdback third-grade students who are not proficient in reading starting in 2021-2022. With that mandate will come some additional resources for lower elementary reading and more teacher training.

Four-year university system asking for 6.8% increase

Alabama’s four-year universities would each receive at least a 5% increase — and a few a bit more — under the 2020-2021 budget recommendations approved by the Alabama Commission on Higher Education this month.

In all, the ACHE board approved a $1.9 billion budget recommendation, a 6.8% increase over the current year’s funding. The commission is required by law to present a single unified higher education budget recommendation for the institutions to the governor and legislature each year.

Universities’ recommended 2021 Education Trust Fund allocations

School2021 RecommendationPercent Increase
Athens State$16.5M11.45%
North Alabama$35.7M8.97%
South Alabama$125.8M5.73%
West Alabama$19.5M6.4%

Source: Alabama Commission on Higher Education

“While many ETF agencies have been restored to pre-recession funding, state colleges and universities are still funded below the financial support provided them in 2008,” ACHE Executive Director Jim Purcell told Alabama Daily News.

About $10.5 million of new money would go to a continued effort to bring some universities’ funding in line with their national peers. Purcell and ACHE recommended similar increases in the current budget and was met with some resistance in the State House from lawmakers who thought their schools were getting jilted. Supporters of Auburn University were critical. Ultimately, the increases were approved and a $5 million pot was set aside that could be allocated to universities that show their peer-gap comparisons weren’t accurate or fair.

Purcell has said that the state’s previous funding of universities wasn’t equitable and increases we given without considering things like shifts in enrollment and programs.

“These adjustments are especially important as the state moves to more accountability and performance funding aspect of the program,” he said.

Purcell points out peer-based funding is a tiny portion of overall funding.

“The goal is to move all of the state colleges and universities to receiving state support to at least 90% of their peer average,” he said. “The peer adjustments represent .5% of the overall higher education budget, and it is money well spent in our effort to provide quality education to Alabama students.”

Poole said discussions by lawmakers about peer gap funding are ongoing and there are several policy issues arising in the higher education budget.

“The Legislature needs to be looking out for the interests of the state, taxpayers, parents and students, not just institutions,” Poole said.

Poole agrees that over time, there have been inequities in college funding. Some institutions have grown, some have shrunk, some have changed their degree focuses and funding has not kept up.

The 2021 ACHE recommendations also include increases in state funding of financial aid.

“Need-based aid was cut drastically as the state addressed budget shortfall during the recession, but (Gov. Kay) Ivey has recognized the importance of state-sponsored financial aid,” Purcell said. “Need-based aid has increased 86% since she became governor.  I have great hopes that need-based aid will more than double before Gov. Ivey leaves office.”

The Alabama Student Assistance Program is a need-based, state and federal grant ranging from $300 to $5,000 per academic year. The funding recommendation for 2021 is $5.6 million.

There are also new items in the budget proposal. College Promise and Career Promise are pilot projects designed to support students from very low-income families to fully participate in dual enrollment and college programs that lead to jobs in their communities, Purcell said. If implemented well, federal matching funds will be available to expand the program.

The consolidated budget recommendation included the state’s two-year colleges, recommending 5% increases for almost all of them. The recommendation for Calhoun Community College is 6.45%.

Community colleges look workforce development funding

Separately, the Alabama Community College System board last week discussed a proposed budget request of $517 million that includes funding for dual enrollment, workforce development initiatives and scholarships and prison education. In total, the recommendation is a 24% increase over the current year.

Some legislative priorities the ACCS laid out during the board’s recent work session included supporting legislation that would create a statewide college scholarship program from lottery proceeds to allow Alabama residents to attend two-year colleges and technical programs.

Boone Kinard, the executive director of external affairs for ACCS, said that if lottery legislation does pass in the 2020 session, he hopes some of the new revenue goes toward scholarships.

“We’re not taking a position on the lottery itself, we’re saying if a lottery passes and a large sum of money is out there to be given, we support some of the proceeds going toward a program like the College Promise scholarship program,” Kinard told ADN.

Supporting more correctional education programs throughout the state is another proposed legislative priority.

“More of what we are hearing from business and industry is that they are willing to look at (former inmates) to hire like never before because we have such a shortage, ‘a workforce crisis,’ as those people have said of available workers,” Kinard said.

The state is currently seeking bids from four companies interested in building three large prisons.

“We want to make sure that these big prisons, if that moves forward, we would like to have dedicated space in those facilities just for training,” Kinard told ADN.

Alabama Daily News reporter Caroline Beck contributed to this report.

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