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Education Budget Debated in Committee: Passes in Senate

By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter

On Tuesday, April 14 the Alabama Senate passed SB179 the Education Trust Fund budget with the unified support of both political parties 33 to 0. The budget included an additional $13.5 million increase for the state’s voluntary Pre-K program. 

State Senator Cam Ward (R from Alabaster) said on Twitter, “Al Senate just passed the #Education Trust Fund Budget unanimously w/ little controversy. Very rare!”

On Wednesday, April 8 the Senate Finance and Taxation Education Committee met for a public hearing on SB179, the Education Trust Fund Budget for Fiscal Year 2016.

Sen. Trip Pittman (R from Montrose) chairs the powerful committee. Pittman announced that the state has paid back the $437 million due to the Alabama Trust Fund.

The voters of Alabama voted to raid the money from the Alabama Trust Fund so the legislature would not have to right size the state’s troubled general fund before the 2014 elections. The money to pay back the ATF came from the Education Trust Fund…..that has a more stables source of revenue.

Chairman Pittman said that the budget is based on projections: “Time will only tell if they are accurate.” Pittman said that the governor submitted a budget. He made some suggestions that agencies currently in the education budget be moved to the general fund. “Some of those agencies had been in the education budget for years.”  Some of those agencies have requested staying in the education budget.         

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Sen. Pittman said that be baseline in the budge formulation is based on what we spent in 2015. Chairman Pittman said that the PACT requirement for 2016 is approximately $32.5 million in 2016. That could grow to $80 million by the end of the decade, Pittman warned.

Pittman said that the actual numbers of public school students declined so that freed up some money that money goes to the foundation program.  In the pre-K through 12 system experts say that the greatest challenges are in the middle school level so the committee moved money to add more 7th and 8th grade teachers.  The retirement system received an additional $6.7 million.  There is an additional appropriation for textbooks.

Sen. Vivian Figures (D from Mobile) asked if textbooks are fully funded: to 2008 levels.

Pittman said, “No it does not get us to 2008 levels.”

Sen. Figures said that we haven’t fully funded textbooks for the children left behind, but we are letting money be diverted to scholarships.

Pittman said, “Education allows individuals to achieve their potential. It allows a representative democracy to survive.”

Sen. Pittman acknowledged that some arguably general fund agencies are funded in the education budget; but “Previous legislatures have diverted far greater funds.  John Dillinger robbed banks because that is where the money is.”

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Pittman said that the lowering of diesel fuel will hopefully help in the transportation costs. The Committee has made a commitment has to increase funding for pre-K.  There are more and more students in the pre-K program every year.  Commissioner Ross said she wanted $20 million.  We were able to settle on $13.5 million.  This is voluntary pre-K.  There is no substitute for parents making good decisions.  “By the time you are 5 years old 80 percent of your cognitive abilities are developed.”  Vocabulary is the basis for phonics.  Phonic are the basis for the ability to read.  “If you have the ability to read you can teach yourself a lot of things.”

Pittman said that hopefully we have good teachers involved.  One of the keys for following that is student assessments.  Last year we were not able to fully fund the assessments called for.  To evaluate performance we need to establish a baseline.  “The superintendent (Tommy Bice) worked out a deal with the testing company so they were able to get those testing started.”  We will have to pay in arear.  Have increased the amount for standardized testing by $6 million.

Pittman said that school systems have made a good step in distance learning.  The systems should be applauded.  Distance learning access is extremely critical to deal with children from rural areas, that need extra time, discipline issues, with transportation problems or special needs.  “We increased access from $18 million to $20 million.”

Pittman said that the 2 year system has a lot of challenges.  There are very important for workforce development.  It is extremely important that the two year system provide quality instruction at the most affordable rate per credit hour.  Dual enrollment has increased from last year.  Children can get bored.  This allows children in HS to start getting credits.  It is a great program that deserves to be expanded.  Looking at the splits on the money there is a $5 million increase for Veterans Affairs.  We understand how important higher Ed is to Alabama. South Alabama got an increase because they have experienced a lot of growth. The PACT program solution was part of something that was not contemplated when the rolling reserve act was passed.  All of the other entities except for rehabilitation services were level funded. They received an additional $million for them to leverage $6 million in federal funds.

Alison Mulendorf with the ASRA thanked the Committee for doubling Alabama’s funding for Pre-K.  The first class of pre-K students are outperforming their peers.  They have better attendance and less are referred to Special Ed.  Mulendorf predicted that they will be more likely to graduate and attend college.  The program currently serves 13% of four year olds.  In the next few years she hoped that all students will have access to voluntary pre-K.  The $13.5 million is the increase needed to work toward the goal of fully funding the program by 2023.

Nancy Pack with the Alabama Public Library Service said that since 1958 we have had a public library in every county in the state.  That will change without needed state funding.

Sen. Pittman defended the money being spent on the expensive ACT Aspire testing.  Pittman said those standards are our state standards. “I am so adamant about the testing because we need to see if those standards are working.”  At this point to determine that we needed a baseline.  ACT is something that all of us are familiar with.

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Roy Clem with Alabama Public Television (APT) said that there were America’s first statewide broadcasting system and have been serving the state for 60 years.

The ETF budget sailed through the Senate and now moves on to the Alabama House of Representatives where no major opposition is expected.

Brandon Moseley is a former reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter.

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