By Minority Leader Rep. Craig Ford
Over the past five years, Medicaid enrollment in our state has increased more than 20 percent, while at the same time the number of Alabamians on food stamps has increased over 61 percent. This means that the jobs we are creating do not come with health benefits or pay enough to feed a family.
Over the course of that same five years, we have cut funding for public education in Alabama by 21 percent.
That is not a coincidence.
There is a strong connection between education and job creation. We have been hemorrhaging jobs in the construction, textile and timber industry while failing in bring in new industry and business to replace these jobs. One of the major reasons for this failure is because we do not support our schools.
Businesses look at a lot of factors when choosing where to bring their business. Typically, these factors include tax incentives, the quality of the workforce and the local schools. These last two go hand-in-hand because so many jobs require a certain level of skill and knowledge, particularly when it comes to technology.
We all know that a good education is essential to a higher-paying job, whether it is a white-collar job or a blue-collar job. Businesses are always sending their employees back to school or paying for them to get a higher education before giving an employee a promotion.
I spent 14 years in the Army Reserve and National Guard. In the military, everyone – from enlisted personnel to senior officers – is required to attend some form of advanced school or graduate program before they can take a higher level of command.
And, of course, there are plenty of studies that show the connection between higher education and higher pay.
With all of that evidence linking job creation and personal success to education, you would think that state leaders would be doing everything in their power to support our schools and provide our children with the resources they need to get the best education possible.
But that is not happening.
For the past three years, our state government has launched an all-out assault on our public schools.
And while the recession has forced us to make some tough budget decisions, the truth is that a lot of these cuts could have been avoided.
Take, for example, the Rolling Reserve Act. This complicated and unnecessary piece of legislation has taken millions of dollars out our schools. This year, that money was used instead to pay off our debts. While I’m all for paying off our debts, that debt repayment shouldn’t come at our children’s expense.
But what really bothers me about the Rolling Reserve Act is that once the debt is fully repaid, the money will continue to be taken out of our school budget and put in the bank.
First, we don’t need a second state savings account. Second, that money will do far more good in the classroom that it will sitting in the bank.
Another assault on our school budgets is the Accountability Act.
The Accountability Act has taken $40 million out of our schools this year alone and used it to send just 52 kids to private school. This is such a waste!
How many textbooks could we have bought with that money? How many more schools could have participated in the AMSTI program? How much more could we have done for our pre-k program and the reading initiative?
All of these things would have done far more for our schools and our economy than the Accountability Act has done or ever will do.
Recently, state Superintendent of Education, Dr. Tommy Bice, said, “We wanted to go on record…to make sure that people understand how woefully underfunded public education is in the state of Alabama.”
For the last three years, we have not supported our schools. We have abandoned them. Until we get serious about supporting education, we will continue to struggle to get our economy back on track.
Representative Craig Ford is a Democrat from Gadsden and the Minority Leader in the Alabama House of Representatives.