Big cuts loom for schools if nothing is done

Published 8:27 pm Monday, January 12, 2009

Times are as tough as anyone can remember. There is no question that everyone has to tighten their belts, including state government. However, there is a difference between tightening and strangling, and that very well may be what we are doing to our schools if something doesn’t change.

There was some sobering news this week. State budget officials estimate that education revenue may be up to $1 billion dollars less than what had been budgeted for this school year. That drop would amount to more than a 15 percent cut in just one year, coming after we already cut 3 percent from K-12 for this year and 10 percent from our colleges and universities.

A single year drop as large as the Fiscal Office is predicting would be unprecedented in modern state history, and would absolutely devastate the progress our schools have made over the past ten years.

For example, it took almost ten years to fully fund the Alabama Reading Initiative. The nationally recognized program started in the late 1990s, but didn’t get to every school until last year because of funding constraints. That is just the way it is in Alabama, we have to slowly build our capacity over time.

What we got in return was the largest jump in elementary reading scores in the nation. There is no doubt that our younger students are better prepared and have better skills, which will then translate into higher achievement in high school and a lower drop out rate. Having better prepared graduates is the single most important factor for future economic growth in Alabama, experts say. Yet it is today’s economy that is putting that progress at risk.

The reason for such a large drop in education revenue is not only the staggering economy, but the type taxes we use to fund education. The majority of education revenue comes from the state sales taxes and the state income tax; both earmarked for education. While it is good for taxpayers to know exactly where their tax dollars are going, relying on these types of revenue streams makes education funding particularly vulnerable to economic downturns.

Most states use property taxes as the basis for school funding, a source that historically has much less volatility than sales and property taxes. Alabama has the lowest overall taxes in the nation, but by far the lowest property taxes. No state is even close. That is what taxpayers have demanded, and the Legislature has followed the people’s wishes.

However, relying on income and sales taxes for our education funding system leaves us at the mercy of economic cycles more so than other states, as highlighted by the dim prospects outlined by state officials.

To add to the troubles, the governor recently declared proration of 12 percent, calling for immediate cuts to this year’s school budget. Back in November, voters passed an amendment expanding the state rainy day fund, allowing in times of emergency the ability to borrow up to 6.5 percent of the school budget from the Alabama oil and gas trust fund. The governor will borrow every dime he can from the rainy day fund this year, and still there will be a cut of at least five percent before school is out.

If things don’t change, it is very possible that all the gains made by our schools this decade could be wiped out, and a quarter of all education spending lost in the span of twelve months. Thousands of teachers could be lost, the Reading Initiative and other programs wiped out, and a generation of students saddled with less opportunity, and possibly less achievement.

This much is clear: the number one topic in the upcoming legislative session is the crisis in Alabama education. Raising taxes is off the table, and other revenue sources are often controversial or not enough to fill the massive gap.

Yet no matter how difficult it is for our state in this economy, we must do whatever we can to ensure that today’s troubles do not rob students of their future.