Senate passes education budget

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The Alabama Senate approved an education budget on Tuesday that included funding for a 2 percent pay raise for educators, the first since 2007, and $40 million to fund the Alabama Accountability Act, the law that allows parents with children in failing schools to earn a tax credit to use at a private school or non-failing public school.

The House of Representatives already passed a different version of the bill so the House must agree to the Senate version or agree to work out the differences in a conference committee during the remaining two days of the legislative session.

The House included the 2 percent pay increase, but Sen. Trip Pittman, the chairman of the Senate education budget committee, had proposed a 1 percent raise with a 1 percent bonus if funding was available.

Sen. Trip Pittman, R-Daphne

Sen. Trip Pittman, R-Daphne

“It is important that we understand that the teachers and administrators and support people across the state are doing great work with our children,” said Pittman, R-Daphne. “We wish we could do more, but the reality is we have to not only give a raise, but we have to sustain it.”

He said he had some concerns about sustaining the pay increase, “but I think we are feeling a little bit better about the revenue projections for this year.”

The $5.766 billion budget, which is for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, also includes $28.5 million for prekindergarten, $304 million for transportation, and $5 million for liability insurance, which the state does not currently offer. Republicans want to offer the liability insurance as an alternative to the Alabama Education Association, which offers liability insurance for members.

Sen. Quinton Ross, D-Montgomery, said the liability insurance is unnecessary and that school districts receive it for employees through membership in the Alabama Association of School Boards.

Democratic senators failed in efforts to remove the $5 million for liability insurance and direct that money elsewhere, including expanded pay raises, school security officers, and text books.

Sen. Roger Bedford, D-Russellville, failed in an effort to give K-12 and two-year college employees and retirees a 5 percent pay raise. Bedford called the vote to table his effort a “sad day for the education family” in the state and said the current increase is only for K-12 employees. He said the last pay raise for education employees was in October 2007 while employees have suffered a 2.5 percent pay cut. He said the 2 percent in the proposed budget does not get them back to their 2007 pay level.

“I am very concerned about the fact that it is going to be difficult to attract bright young people to the field of education,” Bedford said.

Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma, tried to use the $5 million to fund books and to go to Alabama Public Television, which he said provides educational television programs for children that could be cut. He said the liability insurance is not needed and books are needed.

Pittman said the House included $66 million to fund the accountability act, but he feels after conversations that “$40 million is more than adequate.” Several education groups have estimated the program could cost much more. Pittman said he interprets the act to only allow those currently in failing schools to be eligible for the tax credit.

“It is disappointing that the Legislature has chosen to make the biggest expenditure of additional funds for the benefit of the parents of private school children instead of the essential needs of public education,” said Henry Mabry, executive secretary of the Alabama Education Association.

Mabry said more money should be put into textbooks and officers to provide security at schools, but instead lawmakers directed money to be used for children to attend private schools. He referred to the accountability act as “No Rich Child Left Behind.”

The Senate budget would repay $35 million to the rainy day fund established for the education budget. Gov. Robert Bentley proposed repaying $100 million to the fund. Pittman said if more money is available, conditional money would be appropriated to repay more to the rainy day fund.

State leaders made increasing funding for the state’s prekindergarten program a priority. Most state officials boast about Alabama’s quality pre-K program, but access and funding are limited. Currently, there is $19 million directed to the program. Bentley suggested increasing the level by $12.5 million to $31.59 million and the House voted to go along. Pittman cut the increase in half in a Senate committee before increasing the level on the Senate floor to $28.46 million, which the Senate approved.

“It is a good program. We want to be able to sustain this program,” Pittman said. He said they want to increase funding so state-funded pre-kindergarten education is available to every child in the state.

Pittman said Bentley wanted the additional $12.5 million, but “we couldn’t get there.”

Pittman said they had other obligations including $50 million “to keep the retirement system actuarially sound” and to repay the trust fund.

Of the proposed spending in the budget, almost 70 percent would go to K-12 education, 25 percent would go to higher education, and 5.4 percent would go elsewhere.

The current education budget is $5.564 billion.

– posted by Sebastian Kitchen

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