Allow me to go back in history and share with you the reason we have a separate education budget. During the Great Depression, education was woefully under funded. Both black and white children were going to dilapidated one-room schools and were sharing threadbare textbooks. Teachers were not even being paid. They were being given script or promissory notes for which they might eventually be paid. The education system in Alabama was abysmal to say the least.
At that time Alabama stepped up to the plate and orchestrated the creation of the Education Trust Fund Budget. The legislature dedicated the state sales tax to education funding. In addition, they earmarked a new tax for education. The new state income tax would go towards education in Alabama.
Little did they know how much these two taxes would grow over the next seven decades. Today these two growth taxes account for two thirds of the state’s revenue.
During my first term in the legislature in the early 1980s the General Fund and Education Fund were about equal, 50-50. Over the last 30 years the growth taxes have grown incrementally so that in 2013 the Education Trust Fund Budget accounts for 70 percent of state tax dollars and the General Fund gets a paltry 30 percent.
Today’s legislature even has two budget committees. There are General Fund and Education Fund, Ways and Means, and Finance Committees.
What about education today? The General Fund Budget is bleak and in dire straits. However, believe it or not, the education budget is up a little. That means that Alabama’s economy is improving because our growth taxes on sales and income are on the up swing.
What is on the education agenda for this year? Prior to the session, Democratic legislators were calling for a pie in the sky 10% pay raise for teachers over the next two years. House Budget Chairman Jay Love said that any raise was iffy because it needed to be sustainable. However, Gov. Bentley in a surprise move called for a 2.5 percent pay increase for teachers in his State of the State address. It appears that the Republican legislature will go along with the governor.
The legislature’s priority for any additional revenue is the expansion of pre-kindergarten and distance learning. They also want to advance the Alabama Math, Science and Technology Initiative and expand career tech in areas such as welding and robotics where students can learn a trade and be able to earn good wages.
The most controversial education issue appears to be a school flexibility bill. This measure is a Republican versus Democrat dividing issue. The Republicans have espoused the initiative as one of their hallmark “We Dare Defend Our Rights” agenda proposals.
The Flexibility Bill began as a simple bill that would allow school districts to design educational approaches best suited to their own areas. School districts could apply for waivers to opt out of fixed educational policies. From the beginning, the bill has been opposed by the Alabama Education Association and most Democrats in both the House and Senate.
Last week the Republicans pulled a classic bait and switch on the beleaguered Democrats. When the bill went to a conference committee, the Flexibility Bill grew from eight pages to 27 pages and basically became a full fledged school voucher bill. The dramatically revamped legislation would give tax credits to parents of children in failing schools and allow them to attend other schools, including private schools.
The GOP dominated Senate steamrolled the measure through by a 22-11 vote and whisked it over to the super Republican House, where it was quickly approved on a 51-26 vote.
The Democrats howled and shouted their disapproval. However, that is about all they can do. They were again run over by a herd of conservative elephants and the once vaunted AEA was stampeded and stomped on and laughed at again.
Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His column appears weekly in more than 70 Alabama newspapers. Steve served 16 years in the state legislature. He may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.