By Minority Leader Rep. Craig Ford
The crisis in the General Fund budget has dominated lawmakers’ focus this year, and for good reason. But one proposed solution that continues to come up, and it would be devastating for Alabama.
State Sen. Paul Bussman (R-Cullman) has introduced a bill to combine the General Fund and Education Trust Fund budgets. In the past, I argued that all that would do is spread the General Fund’s problems to our public schools. And while that is still very true, there’s another important reason why we don’t need to combine the budgets.
Even though the Education Trust Fund (ETF) isn’t in as much trouble as the General Fund doesn’t mean that the ETF is out of the woods.
Since 2008, Alabama has cut per student funding for k-12 schools by more than 20 percent, according to the non-partisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. That means Alabama is spending $1,242 less per student than we were before the recession. At the same time, funding for post-secondary schools (i.e., community colleges and universities) has been cut by more than 35 percent!
What do those spending cuts look like in the real world?
A perfect example is the Russellville City Schools Rocketry Team. These kids, some of whom are only 13 years old, just came back from the Paris Air Show in France where they won the international rocketry competition. They aren’t just national champions. They are international champions.
And do you know how much funding they received from the state? Zero.
These kids had to raise the money on their own to compete in their competitions. And on top of that, they had to spend hundreds of hours over the last year working in a building that had no heating or air conditioning.
So when some legislators start talking about a “surplus” in the education budget, keep in mind that that doesn’t mean the education budget has money to give away. It just means we collected more money than we budget to spend. And there are very real needs in education where that money needs to be spent.
Unfortunately, some legislators have forgotten that. They would rather take even more money away from our children’s education than let the people vote on a lottery and gambling, or make tough choices about budget cuts and tax increases.
After more than 20 percent cuts in k-12 and more than 35 percent cuts in post-secondary education, the answer isn’t taking more money away from education. If anything, we should be putting more money into education!
If we did, it would help the General Fund in the long run. The General Fund’s biggest expenditures are prisons and Medicaid. People who are better educated are less likely to make choices that land them in jail, and are also more likely to make better health choices.
And after years of asking educators and state employees to do more with less and for less money, it is long-past time that we give our educators and state employees a pay raise instead of balancing the budgets on their backs.
But our current leadership has not supported public education. Their signature policies, like the Accountability Act and charter schools, only undermine public education and set it up to fail.
And that’s why I’m not surprised that some of them now see combining the budgets as the solution to the General Fund’s crisis. But robbing our children is not-and never will be-the answer!
Furthermore, combining the budgets has the same problem that gambling has with getting us out of this crisis, because it would require a constitutional amendment voted on by the people in a special election. That means the quickest we could start transferring money out of the ETF would be the spring of 2016.
If we were going to do that, then why not let the people vote on a lottery and gambling bill instead? We could start receiving money from gambling just as quickly, plus it wouldn’t take anything away from public education.
There’s a reason Alabama keeps education funding separate from everything else: to protect our schools from being raided every time the General Fund gets in trouble. And even with that protection, education has still been gutted over the last few years.
Just because the ETF has a surplus this year doesn’t mean it has more money than it needs. That surplus needs to be spent on education, like it was intended to be. What it doesn’t need to be is a bailout for politicians who would rather take money away from our children’s education than have to make tough decisions.
Robbing our children is not-and never will be-the answer!
Rep. Craig Ford is a Democrat from Gadsden and the Minority Leader in the Alabama House of Representatives.