By Minority Leader Rep. Craig Ford
When it comes to education, it’s not often that Alabama Democrats and Republicans agree. But one issue where we have found common ground is supporting dual enrollment for Alabama’s high school students.
Dual enrollment allows kids to get a head start on their college degrees or vocational training programs by enrolling in college courses while still in high school. The program is extremely successful, and is proven to increase the likelihood of a student completing their degree or vocational program.
The problem is that currently only about 7 percent of eligible students in Alabama participate in a dual enrollment program. The reason so few participate is because we only have a limited number of scholarships to give out each year. This year, there were up to $4 million in requests for scholarships, but the state could only give out about $2 million.
Because of a lack of funding, thousands of kids lost a chance to get a higher education because they could not afford it without the scholarships. That just shouldn’t happen!
The good news is that Democrats and Republicans agree and we all want to do something about it. The bad news is that both parties have offered very different proposals to increase funding for these scholarships, and the outcome could have a drastic impact on our schools.
The plan that House Democrats proposed a few weeks ago would provide an additional $5 million for dual enrollment. This is the amount that has been requested by the Department of Post Secondary Education. To pay for this increased funding, Democrats would eliminate a new $5 million government liability insurance program that was created last year. The Democratic plan would also make dual enrollment a line item in the education budget so that that money will be protected.
Almost every educator in the state of Alabama already has liability insurance through the private sector. Most educators receive liability insurance through their professional associations. In many cases, they also are provided with additional coverage by their local school boards. So it is an unnecessary waste of the taxpayers’ money for the state to provide a third form of liability insurance.
It is also hypocritical that the same Republican politicians in Montgomery who complain about the government getting involved in the insurance business have now suddenly decided that only the government can provide the liability coverage that teachers need.
By eliminating the $5 million liability insurance program, we can expand the scholarships for dual enrollment without costing the taxpayers a single penny and without diverting more funds away from our public schools.
The Republican Supermajority in Montgomery has offered a different plan for expanding dual enrollment. Their plan would create a $10 million scholarship program. To pay for their plan, they will offer tax credits to individuals and businesses that donate to the scholarship program.
The problem with that plan is that these tax credits will be paid for out of the education budget. So instead of providing additional money for these scholarships, the Republican plan essential shifts $10 million out of the school budget. As the saying goes, “They are robbing Peter to pay Paul.”
The other problem with their plan is that it does not make dual enrollment a line item in the budget. So there is no protection for the money or the scholarships.
Democrats and Republicans agree that we need to expand dual enrollment. But we shouldn’t be doing it at the expense of public education. The responsible thing to do is to repeal the teacher liability insurance program and put that money into dual enrollment. If we want to spend more than that $5 million then we need to be looking at selling bonds, not giving out more tax credits. These tax credits will take desperately needed funds out of our schools. And as we’ve seen with the Accountability Act, most of these tax credits will only benefit corporations and wealthy donors.
We all agree with the goal. Now let’s work together to achieve it the right way, and not at the expense of the taxpayers or our public schools.
Rep. Craig Ford is a Democrat from Gadsden. He has served in the Alabama House of Representatives since 2000, and was elected House Minority Leader in 2010.