By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News
Montgomery, Ala — An additional $318 million for K-12 schools is in Alabama’s 2020 education budget and lawmakers and education leaders say that money will make tangible differences in local schools.
Gov. Kay Ivey signed the record-setting education budget into law on Thursday.
“This budget represents significantly more resources for education,” Senate education budget committee chairman Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, said.
Here’s what some of the new money will mean to K-12 schools.
There’s nearly $190 million more for the K-12 Foundation Program that supports schools’ basic functions. The 2020 total is $3.9 billion. There’s also an additional $27.8 million for transportation.
“We’re almost back to full funding of transportation, so you’ll see fleet renewal speed up,” Rep. Bill Poole, R-Tuscaloosa said about the state’s commitment to school bus transportation costs. He oversees the education budget in the House.
School libraries haven’t had significant funding since the recession. The 2020 budget includes a one-time $6 million line-item for them.
“That will include not just books, but technology,” Poole said.
“According to the librarians, that’s significant,” Orr said.
The budget more than doubles to $7.3 million the amount spent on English language learners in public schools. Earlier this year, State Superintendent Eric Mackey told lawmakers $400 per English language learning student is needed, up from $130 currently.
“You just have a multitude of challenges, the more ELL students you have,” Orr said about the need for the increase.
It’s not quite K-12, but Alabama will add 164 pre-kindergarten classrooms to 38 counties this fall.
The voluntary pre-K program will reach 21,636 children in the 2019-2020 school year, with more than 1,202 classrooms statewide, Gov. Kay Ivey’s office said recently.
“People will see that in their communities,” Poole said.
The $26.8 million increase will mean about 40 percent of Alabama 4-year-olds will have access to the award-winning program. Waiting lists will likely continue at least in some areas. Ivey’s goal is for 70 percent of eligible children to eventually have access to First Class Pre-K.
Personnel and smaller classrooms
In 2020, getting more teachers in grades four, five and six are a priority to reduce classroom size — they’re the largest classes in most systems. The budget has money for about 250 new teachers.
Education groups didn’t get the retirement benefits changes they’d requested, but say a 4% pay raise for teachers and support staff will help address the state’s teacher shortage.
For the first time, a starting teachers’ salary in Alabama is more than $40,000.
Mark Dixon, president of A+ Education Partnership, said the increase puts Alabama’s starting salaries closer to the national average and among the highest in the region.
“When it comes to recruitment, that’s absolutely critical because we’re not just competing with the different school districts, we’re competing across state lines, so we need to make sure we have a competitive starting salary,” Dixon said.
More conversations on addressing the shortage and teacher benefits are expected.
“We need to have the conversation about compensation, about where our needs are and address those needs accordingly,” Orr said.
Lawmakers approved a bill to hold back third-grade students who are not proficient in reading starting in 2021-2022. With that mandate will come some additional resources for lower elementary reading.
“There is an additional $7.5 million in this budget to help with those efforts over the next year,” Dixon said. “Plus the (department of education) is going to be spending an additional $1 million this summer in literacy training.”
Lawmakers also approved a bill requiring K-12 schools to offer computer science instruction.
“It’s going to begin in high schools the next few years and this budget provides $1 million for training for teachers across the state to teach those high-quality courses,” Dixon said.
“So when you think about the foundational skills that students need in literacy and then the skills they need with computer science to be competitive in today’s job market, these are huge steps in the right direction.”
There are many other increases in the budget for K-12, including for advanced placement classes and robotics and $600 per classroom for instructional supplies. The instructional supply money means teachers don’t have to spend their own money on their classrooms.
“This is a very good budget,” said Ryan Hollingsworth, executive director of School Superintendents of Alabama.
Alabama Education Association President Sherry Tucker, also praised it.
“With the increase in classroom supply money, professional development funds, technology funds, and library enhancement funds, our educators are finally beginning to receive the resources they need to truly be successful for the children of Alabama,” Tucker said.
No CHIP, but a revenue transfer
Some lawmakers disagreed during the session about whether the state’s $35 million match for the federal Children’s Health Insurance Program should come out of the education budget or the General Fund. In the end, it is a General Fund expense. But lawmakers agreed that starting in October 2020, revenue from an insurance premium tax will be diverted from the education budget to the General Fund budget. The revenue is currently worth about $31 million a year.
An economic development incentives bill with the transfer amendment passed unanimously in both the Senate and House.
Advancement and Technology (and much more) Fund increase
It’s not technically in the 2020 budget, but schools systems should soon expect a major increase in a 2019 supplemental appropriation for the Advancement and Technology Fund.
In 2018, schools received a combined $39 million. This year, it’s nearly $199 million divided among the systems based on their enrollment.
“It’s a lot more money coming into schools, on top of their budget allocations,” Orr said.
Last year, after the Parkland, Fla., school shooting, lawmakers said Alabama schools could also use that money on security improvements. They can also spend it on transportation, maintenance and insurance costs.
The money bought systems a wide range of items and improvements, from new roofs and air conditioners to insurance to laptops to new door locks and security cameras.
According to the Alabama State Department of Education, in 2018, 29% of the money was spent on technology, 28% on security, 23% on maintenance, 12% on transportation and 8% on insurance.
Hollingsworth said systems are using the technology fund to catch up from budget cuts following the recession.
“When we encountered proration for three consecutive years in fiscal years ’09, ’10 and ’11, many districts had to use funds designated for maintenance to support essential functions to keep the school open,” Hollingsworth said. “Many districts are still recovering from three years of not being able to address maintenance issues and renovations.”
Orr and others said putting the money in the Advancement and Technology Fund lets schools decide how to best spend it.
Mackey this year had asked for a separate, $22 million line-item for school security. Ivey and lawmakers didn’t put that in the budget.
Some school leaders said lack of funding at the state level has required schools to use the Advancement and Technology money on basic school upkeep.
“That category has evolved into a catch-all category of funding that the legislature has modified to be a solution for underfunding in many critical areas,” Jefferson County Superintendent Craig Pouncey, a former state deputy superintendent, said.
Some would still like to see security as its own budget item.
“There is no question that we need money for security,” Franklin County Schools Superintendent Greg Hamilton said. He said that having several demands in the Advancement and Technology Fund mean they’re competing against each other.
“My issue right now, and we have lots of them, we’re in dire need for capital projects,” Hamilton said about a recent increase of about 500 students. “We’re using Advancement and Technology money to repair buildings.”
Orr said that as education budget funding for transportation and other expenses increases, schools should be able to focus on Advancement and Technology money on security and technology.
Alabama Daily News reporter Caroline Beck contributed to this report.