School revenue the state’s No. 1 issue

Published 10:38 pm Monday, October 5, 2009

Times are tough everywhere. No one is immune to the effects of the recession, especially our schools.

 Just last week, the governor declared the second straight year of proration. That’s the first time we’ve had back-to-back cuts in education since the early 1990s. Gov. Bob Riley pegged the proration at 7.5 percent, which lands on top of the 11 percent proration from last year.

By the end of the school year, funding may be $1 billion less than it was just four years ago. When we had the revenue, investments were made in things like the Alabama Reading Initiative that yield tremendous gains in student achievement. Now, it looks like we’ll be lucky just to keep the school doors open. 

The reason for the cuts is because of the way we fund our schools. Most education funding comes from the state, and the state generates school revenue almost exclusively through the sales tax and the state income tax. However, these two taxes are some of the most susceptible to economic downturns. When things start to sputter like they did in the middle of last year, income and purchasing also stumble, and there isn’t enough revenue generated to meet the school budget. 

Poor economic forecasts have already led the Legislature to make harsh cuts in education. The budget for new textbooks was slashed almost to zero. We had to eliminate the help teachers get for classroom supplies, forcing them to dig deeper into their own pockets to furnish their classrooms. We slashed funds for transportation, halting the purchases of new buses and moving more of the costs to local systems.  

Where we could draw the line on cuts, we did. Not one state funded teacher unit was cut. Keeping that teacher in the classroom was and should be the priority.  

However, locally funded teacher units are not so lucky. Local systems are struggling with a drop in local revenue. Alabama has the lowest property taxes in the nation, and though the local millage generates an important part of many local school budgets, many school systems rely mostly on local sales taxes for funding. As funding stumbles, it unfortunately means some teacher layoffs. 

Yet, even after harsh cuts, the schools will have to look at other places to cut spending. Other personnel like nurses, teacher aides and cafeteria workers are suffering layoffs. New library books are a distant dream. Building maintenance will be deferred. Many systems are being forced to borrow money to keep schools open.

Such budget calamities are the reason why you’ll start to see the drive for new revenue streams. More taxes on working families are a non-starter. Corporations have the muscle to keep their state taxes the lowest in the country. If there are other options for school funding, let the governor offer them.

Filling a billion dollar hole in the school budget is serious business, and it’s one with influence on our children’s future.