By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
On Tuesday the House Ways and Means Committee for Education passed the Republican education budget out of committee. Included in the budget was an across the board 2% pay raise for education employees, liability insurance for teachers, and tax credits for parents of Alabama students who choose to take their children out of Alabama’s worst public schools.
The budget that passed on Tuesday was a substitute for the one that was released just a week earlier. Chairman Jay Love (R) from Prattville said that most of the changes were requested by Alabama Governor Robert Bentley (R). Among the changes is a new software system for the Alabama two year college system that allows them to all use the same financial record keeping systems. The new budget also added a training program at Wallace Community College which helps train first responders to make split second decisions in hostage situations. Love said that the Governor’s finance department also asked that they add catastrophic Special Education appropriations. In cases where a special needs student needs specialized services for their disability the funding that goes to K-12 now is inadequate for some catastrophic special ED students. They also increased funding for the innovative nursing program at UAH and the cancer center at the University of South Alabama.
Chairman Love said that higher education receives 26.42% of the education dollars and K-12 received 73.58% of the 2013/2014 education budget. Love said that this budget also includes an appropriation of $5 million for professional liability insurance for Alabama teachers, so they don’t have to work through a third party to get insurance. Love said that the initial cost is $5 million, but that that should come down to $2 to 3 million after the first few years.
School Specialist Melissa Shields from Hokes Bluff said that instead of funding the liability insurance the state should spend more money on Advanced Placement (AP) classes. “We are trying to fund something that we already have.” Shields said that Dr. Bice had asked for $1.5 million to grow the program. “My daughter will go to college with 18 hours of advanced placement credit.” Shields said that more AP classes, “Is what is in the best interests of our students.”
Chairman Love said, “This is a benefit that we are trying to provide teachers.” “Some teachers are paying up to $500 a year to buy that coverage.” Love said that nobody should have to go out on their own to buy coverage that should be paid for by their employer.
Rep. Craig Ford (D) from Gadsden said that he opposed the liability insurance, questioned Love’s motives, and was going to try to amend the budget on the floor of the House to use that money for teacher raises instead of liability insurance. Currently the teachers unions provide their membership with similar insurance. Critics of the status quo argue that the unions (predominately the Alabama Education Association (AEA)) use the lack of liability insurance to pressure teachers into joining the union and artificially inflates their membership.
Rep. Patricia Todd (D) from Birmingham tried to amend the budget to strip half of the funding for the Marion Military Education and give it to Art Education. That amendment was easily defeated. She also questioned earmarks to the Alabama Shakespeare festival, Lyman Ward, and the McWane Center. “I don’t like to see these earmarks.” Todd also objected to using the education budget to fund OEM and AIDT at the Commerce Department and funding for administration of Veteran Affairs. I want to be on record that I constantly challenge these things.” Todd also spoke against the tax credits for the Alabama Accountability Act. “I am extremely concerned that we are using taxpayer money for scholarships for children to go to Rep. Phil Williams (R) from Huntsville thanked Chairman Love for keeping that $35 million hard payment to pay back the money that the state borrowed from the Alabama Trust fund.
Chairman Love said, “We have to pay that back by the end of 2015. If the economy keeps growing we can pay this,”
Rep. Craig Ford objected to cuts to scholarships for college students who join the National Guard. “Why was that cut?” “That is a great program it is for students who go to college and want to be in the Alabama Guard.”
Chairman Love said it was the same as last year there was no cut this year, however the program was cut the year before that.
Rep. Terri Collins (R) from Decatur proposed several amendments to restore funding for Teach for America. Collins said that over half of their appropriation was taken out. Collins said that the program just came to Alabama in 2010 and has 116 core members. “Half of those are in the black belt doing great jobs.” The others are mostly in very urban areas. Collins said that the federal government provides most of the funding and all the state has to provide is matching funds. She proposed cutting appropriations for Black Belt Treasures. She said ir Math and Science programs. Collins said that Blackbelt Treasures looks a store that sells local quilts, woven baskets, and blackbelt souvenirs. Collins amendment would cut that by $100,000.
Rep. John Rogers (D) from Birmingham said, “Teach for America is not a very good idea,” and objected to restoring any money to the program.
Collins also proposed taking funding away from new systems planning & Development and the Governor’s High Hopes program to fund Teach For America. Collins said that the Governor requested $4.2 million for the program. “We put in $6 million.” Collins amendment would have moved $2 million to AMSTI and $300k to Teach for America. Both of those amendments were tabled.
Chairman Love said, “A lot of thought has been put in this budget. When you start taking $2 million from one part of the budget and moving it around it affects a lot of programs.”
Roy Clem the new CEO of Alabama Public Television addressed the committee asking for more money. Clem said that the public broadcaster had been cut 58% cut over last three years. “Just to maintain what we are doing right now we are $1.5 million short going into 2014.” Clem said that their children’s programing improved children’s ability to read and count. Clem said that 33,000 public school teachers utilize the material, as do 1300 private school teachers 500 home schoolers.
The budget and the pay raise both passed the committee with a favorable recommendation. The Full House is expected to take up the education budget as early at 3:30 pm this afternoon.