Education Funding Reform Long Overdue in Alabama
Proration, Proration, Proration.” They’re playing that old, familiar song these days in Montgomery, Ala., accompanied by a symphony of complaints, arguments and accusations. But there’s a new twist in the latest version of the old song. Last year, a circuit court judge abruptly informed the executive and legislative branches of state government of two things: Revenue shortages cannot be offset by prorating K-12 public schools, and the state has thus far failed to solve the real underlying problem, which is how to pay adequately for education in the state.
This Alabama problem is decades old. It is a problem acknowledged by practically every citizen in the state, and yet no reform has occurred. The problem is exacerbated by the rifts it has produced among the K-12, postsecondary and higher education sectors, forcing them to compete when none of them is fully funded in the first place.
It is disconcerting, at best, that more than $200 million of the Special Education Trust Fund is spent on entities — private institutions, museums and the like — that are not part of the public system of education. Some people contend that “pork” money should be spent on classroom education, while others contend higher education should absorb all of the budget cutbacks. Later, the judge ruled that, constitutionally, the cutbacks could not come via proration of K-12.
Clearly, some type of reform in Alabama must begin now. Proposals include ad valorem tax increases, even though there is not always a relationship between the amount of tax paid and one’s income. For example, farmer whose net income is barely at poverty level could quickly have an unbearable debt if his land taxes were raised. In any case, no tax affects everyone the same, so there will always be bitter arguments about changes. The truth is, no single solution exists.
What leaders can do, however, is closely examine current allocations and then exercise creativity in their approaches and courage in their decision-making. Things they could consider, for example:
• Are some items that have traditionally been viewed as sacred or untouchable — such as the fact that total compensation is more than just salary — really untouchable?
• Can we ignore the fact that current funding formulas for higher education are not and have not been realistic?
• In an era in which the average Alabama family owns two cars, is it time to take a hard look at what transportation — school buses — is costing K-12?
• How about levying a special “percentage tax” for education on people whose annual incomes exceed $150,000?
Given that the average Alabamian gives over 31 percent of family income to total taxes, the latter might be an attractive alternative. Given that average family income in Alabama ranks 47th among the 50 states, the idea might be even more attractive.
Meanwhile, full state funding for education is not a new, extreme or necessarily creative suggestion, and yet it is an option that remains untried in Alabama. The state has continued to rely in part on federal and other funding sources to support education — a precarious and sometimes serendipitous setup. With the Legislature granting large blocks of funds, wouldn’t there inevitably be far more accountability and predictability?
When it comes to funding higher education, “live for the day” should not be our motto. Actions speak volumes about what matters to us as Alabamians. Will ours be a history of perpetual funding struggles, one year after the next? Or will our efforts today be a model upon which future generations can build?
— Dr. John T. Gibson is president of Alabama A&M University in Normal, Ala.
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