With the General Fund facing an acute shortfall and the education budget still struggling to recover to pre-Great Recession levels, there are beginning to be conversations about new approaches to budgeting.
At a recent State Board of Education meeting, State School Superintendent Tommy Bice told board members he was in discussion with the governor’s office and representatives of the legislative leadership about formulating a budget request that was strategic and deliberate rather than “shooting the moon.”
That would be unusual. This is the season when state agencies draw up their budget requests and submit them to the governor’s office, an annual ritual that bears some resemblance to making up lists for Santa Claus. Budget requests are typically an expression of wishes or needs, without regard to what Santa can realistically deliver, and without a clear link to achievable, measurable goals.
But in this case, the State Board of Education does have goals and will have a system of measuring progress toward those goals. The current wish list is well beyond currently available resources but it does step back from an immediate demand for a full restoration of pre-Recession spending levels.
In his presentation to the Board, Bice described conversations with the governor’s office and the Legislature under which the parties would pursue a three-year plan to fully fund the Foundation Program, the mechanism the state uses to distribute most of its support to local school systems. He also listed items requested by the State Department that would support the goals of Plan 2020, the state’s plan to raise the quantity and quality of graduates from Alabama K-12 schools. State Board Member Mary Scott Hunter said she was encouraged in her conversations with legislators who’d said they wanted to pursue an education budget built on planning and goals.
“I think it highlights the need to be deliberate and strategic,” Hunter said, “and to be working with our colleagues across the street.”
Still, there is a wide gulf between the money available and the Department’s aspirations for K-12 schools.
Under the current controls on education spending growth, the Department of Education estimates that K-12 education could have an additional $35-40 million to spend in 2016.
But the department’s draft budget request, envisions asking for an additional $228 million for K-12 education in 2016.
The largest portion of that request is $175 million to begin the process of restoring full-funding for the Foundation Program. The Foundation Program is supposed to provide enough for an adequate and equitable education at schools across the state. Since the budget problems developed, various components of the Foundation Program — operating support, technology, textbooks, professional development, classroom and library supplies, and transportation — have been cut or zeroed out. The $175 million portion of the request also includes a one percent pay increase for employees and the first installment of a plan to restore 1,066 teaching positions lost to budget reductions.
Beyond that money for local systems, the State Department is proposing an increase of $51 million in various state-level initiatives that support the strategic priorities of Plan 2020.
- $10 million to pay for the new suite of assessments that measure student and school academic progress.
- $5.1 million to expand the Alabama Math and Science Initiative.
- $5 million to meet the demand for distance learning and to establish a virtual high school.
- $5 million for an initiative to recruit new teachers into the profession and for creating alternative routes for career advancement other than moving into administration.
- $5 million for expanding the network of Family Resource Centers to better connect schools and students to community resources.
- $5 million for further Career Tech expansion.
- $5 million for a competitive grant pool to support innovation in schools.
- $4.8 million increase needed to support systems’ assessment of learning needs in special populations of students.
- $3.8 million for a system of online, formative assessments provided to school systems.
- $1 million to complete the planned expansion of Advanced Placement courses.
- $1 million to establish a competitive grant program to help schools pay for arts education with an emphasis on those systems that currently can’t afford it.