Alabama schools need more support
Published 11:36 pm Thursday, December 10, 2015
Alabama’s struggling public schools need all the support they can get.
That makes a coalition just launched to advocate for pre-K-12 schools, colleges and universities a critical boost in a state known for mediocrity, at best, when it comes to education.
Called Alabama Unites for Education, the group’s goal is to protect school funding and quality. Noteworthy members include University of Alabama System Chancellor, Robert Witt, State Superintendent of Education Tommy Bice, Mark Heinrich, chancellor of the Alabama Community College System, and UA and Auburn campus presidents.
They’ll work year-round to keep education issues on the radar, hoping aggressive outreach will lead to stronger public and legislative support for schools.
The coalition comes after state lawmakers this year plucked $80 million in use taxes from the Education Trust Fund to fill gaping holes in the General Fund budget.
More such raids may lie ahead in the February 2016 session. Unless, that is, the Republican-led Legislature suddenly and miraculously decides to raise new revenue for the perennially deficient General Fund in more responsible ways.
We won’t be holding our breath for that to happen.
Meanwhile, the coalition faces a long list of problems related to underfunded schools.
Start with the miserly budget granted the state’s highly rated but far too small voluntary pre-K program.
Gov. Robert Bentley is pushing to increase its budget next year by $12.5 million, allowing 2,200 more students to enroll. That would boost enrollment from the current six percent of the state’s four-year-olds to 11 percent.
While welcome, that’s too timid and slow-moving a goal. States that offer universal voluntary pre-K programs, such as Florida and Georgia, enroll more than 50 percent of 4-year-old children in free half-day programs, giving them a step up in learning skills and preparation for elementary school.
At the other end of the education spectrum, average tuition rates at Alabama’s public colleges and universities continue to surge, up more than 58 percent since 2008.
Those hikes stem in part from steep per-student state funding cuts for higher education since the beginning of the recession. They put college degrees out of reach for many children from lower- and middle-income families, or cripple them with student loan debt that hampers their financial health for decades.
Unrelenting advocacy will be needed from AUE leaders for the lost funding to be restored so schools can better keep tuition affordable for all.
There are many other battles to be fought, including:
Halting the funneling of public school dollars to private schools through the grossly mislabeled Alabama Accountability Act.
Ensuring students receive instruction that meets rigorous standards, including established scientific facts on evolution.
The AUE coalition has its work cut out for it. We wish it success for the sake of Alabama’s children and economic future.
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