Back to the Basics on Taxes and Budgeting

With the Governor and Legislature still at odds over how to solve a $250 million shortfall in the state’s General Fund, we thought it would be useful to again call attention to two essential underlying problems that explain why we are in the current predicament. PARCA has written about both recently and, over the past two decades, frequently.

1. Alabama state and local governments collect less tax revenue per capita than any other state in the United States. Governments here have less to work with when trying to provide services equivalent to those offered in other states.

2. Alabama doesn’t budget, in a meaningful sense. In the absence of a budgeting system that prioritizes investments and measures results, the Governor and Legislature simply try to balance revenue with expenditures, resorting to borrowing and shuffling money between accounts in times of scarcity.

Starting last fall, PARCA wrote about the building budget crunch coming in the state General Fund. Our annual meeting featured promising plans to unpack our overcrowded prisons and reform the way Medicaid works in Alabama. The long-term intent of both of those reform efforts were to put in place more effective approaches that would save money in the long run. Both plans will fall apart under the no-new-revenue General Fund budgets that have been passed and vetoed thus far. Failure to address the prison problems could lead to federal takeover. The potential damage to Medicaid will have serious consequences for the entire health care system. This memo produced by state agency heads this spring gives a concise assessment of what the no-new-revenue budget would mean for the courts, mental health, public safety, state parks, environmental enforcement, and a host of other state services.

The governor has proposed a package of taxes that his office anticipates would raise $300 million more per year. If that package were to pass and the projected revenue were generated, Alabama would still rank 50th in per capita tax collections.


Alabama Strategies for National Problem of Teacher Shortages

PARCA’s new Teachers Matter report, commissioned by the Business Education Alliance, identifies Alabama-specific strategies for recruiting and retaining teachers. The report’s release comes in the midst of rising concern over a local and national shortage of teachers.

As children headed back to the classroom this month, several Alabama school systems reported difficulty filling vacancies. The Tuscaloosa City Schools System was offering $5,000 signing bonuses for math teachers. The Jefferson County School System was short 30 classroom teachers heading into the school year.

PARCA’s review of Alabama Department of Education data found that the shortages were concentrated in certain fields like math, science and special education. The shortages also tended to be concentrated in rural systems and certain urban districts. Those subjects and those geographies also tend to be where Alabama faces its toughest academic challenges. Teachers Matter suggests reviving and revising the Alabama Teacher Recruitment Incentive Program to provide scholarship support and other incentives to individuals willing to teach in high-need fields and hard-to-staff schools.

The report also recommends resurrecting the Alabama Teacher Mentoring Program, which provided a $1,000 stipend to veteran teachers who coached and supported teachers in their first year in the classroom. Teachers who’ve had mentoring support tend to be more successful and persist in the profession at a far higher rate. The report also calls for creating options other than administration for talented veteran teachers who want advance professionally but who want to stay in teaching.

The shortage problem is by no means restricted to Alabama. The New York Times and National Public Radio have recently taken a look at the problem.

PARCA Briefs BCA on Teacher Quality and Progress in Public Education

Alabama public schools have made substantial progress in raising high school graduation rates, but must continue to improve student performance on measures of college and career readiness.

To do that, the state must sharpen its focus on the quality of public school teachers. That means recruiting talent to the profession, supporting existing teachers in a quest to continuously improve their craft, and rewarding teachers for successes. Alabama’s local school systems spent over $3 billion in 2014 providing teachers for public school classrooms, which accounted for 53 percent of core operating expenses. Teachers are the state’s largest and most important educational investment.

Strategies for improving teacher quality are detailed in a new report, Teachers Matter: Rethinking How Public Education Recruits, Rewards, and Retains Great Educators, which was released today at the Business Council of Alabama’s Governmental Affairs Conference at The Marriott Grand Hotel in Point Clear.

PARCA prepared the report for the Business Education Alliance, a 501(c)(3) foundation devoted to helping Alabama have a well-prepared workforce and a robust economy through initiatives to improve education that are brought about by collaboration between educators and business/industry.

The release of the new report was accompanied by a presentation and publication of the 2015 BEA Progress Report, which updates progress made on the state’s educational strategic plan, Plan 2020.

In 2014, PARCA prepared and presented a comprehensive look at Plan 2020, Obstacles into Opportunities, also commissioned by the BEA. That report looked at the potential benefits to the state of reaching its educational goals: a 90 percent high school graduation rate, with every graduate prepared for college and a career.

The release of Teachers Matter comes the same week as the Alabama Board of Education approved new and higher standards for the state’s teacher preparation programs. This school year, the State Department of Education is leading local systems statewide through the first year of a two-year design process for a new performance evaluation system for teachers. The new system, Educate Alabama, should be in place for the 2017-2018 school year. For the first time, this teacher performance evaluation system will include as a factor student performance on benchmark tests. Test scores will be one of multiple measures, including student surveys, self-assessment and self-improvement plans made by the teacher, as well as other factors.

Teachers Matter recommends:

–  Reviving and revising a state scholarship and incentive program for individuals willing to teach in high-need fields and hard-to-staff schools.
–  Restoring the Alabama Teacher Mentoring Program, which paired first-year teachers with veteran teachers to support the transition to teaching.
–  Sponsoring pilot programs that create new roles for teachers, creating pathways to grow and advance in the profession.
–  Restoring funding for a Rewards program to recognize schools and faculties that make significant performance improvements or consistently deliver excellent results.