2009, a very tough year comes to an end

Published 11:51 am Thursday, December 24, 2009

There are some years that you just don’t want to see end, and there are others that you wait for it to end. 2009 is not one of those years that we’ll be wanting back. On every front, this has been one of the toughest 12 months anyone can remember.

As the year began, it was an open question whether our financial system would survive a calamity of its own making. There was talk of another Great Depression, and the economic slowdown was apparent everywhere.

Those concerned with education could readily see the problems in the economy. Since the end of 2007 when the recession started, state income and sales taxes have declined, and at times fell faster than at any time in recorded history. Those two revenue streams are earmarked solely for schools, and they make up the basis for education funding in our state.

Keeping track of the health of the Education Trust Fund and its two revenue sources is probably one of the most accurate gauges of the state economy. There is little doubt that coming into 2009 we were in the worst economy in a generation, and the situation was dire.

For the first time in decades, we had back-to-back proration the last two years. Proration is the process of automatic cuts when revenue doesn’t meet budgets. When it is all said and done, this year we will spend $1.4 billion less on schools than we did just two years ago before the troubles began. That is almost a 20 percent cut in the school budget, and the biggest spending reduction in state history.

Now, some say cynically that the cuts don’t really hurt; there is enough in Alabama education spending to get by no matter how much the reductions were. There are others that say funding doesn’t matter. They are wrong, and experience shows us so.

When we made investments in funding, we got great returns. When we invested in the Reading Initiative, we got the highest jump in elementary reading scores in the nation. When we invested in distance learning, we got one of the highest jumps in students taking advanced placement. We have started to see the same kinds of gains in the Math and Science Initiative.

Then we saw the slowdown begin in 2007, and it got worse in 2008, and then finally hit the hardest this past year. As the slowdown occurred, the Legislature acted responsibly and made cuts that shielded the most important thing in education: the classroom. We worked hard to see that teachers were there to teach, class sizes did not expand, and that there was enough to keep the lights on and the buses running.

But that is about it.

This year, there were no new textbooks, no expansion of effective programs, and no new buses to replace the worn ones. We have seen cuts that go to the bone, and now all the programs and progress are threatened.

So as we see 2009 go into the record books as one of the toughest years on record, we hope that things will turn around in 2010. Legislative budget analysts recently told us that revenue for education will basically be level from what it was in 2009. While that is not very good news, it is better than the steep drops we have seen.

Economists have said that we are beginning to emerge from the recession. Alabama unemployment did not go up last month, which is the first time it has steadied in more than two years. Alabama auto plants are back up to capacity, and there are other signs that our state is starting to come back.

Let us hope that this time next year we can look back on 2010 much more kindly than we are for 2009.