A recent national report paints an ugly picture of education funding in Alabama, pointing out that the state had the biggest loss of per-pupil state funding in the nation between the 2008 and 2014 fiscal years.
But at least Alabama appears to be starting to make up some of the ground that eroded since the economy faltered in 2008, with all of the state's 135 school systems getting out of the red and many of them starting to replace the reserve funds that withered away during the national economic crisis.
However, any discussion of the state's public school funding must not lose sight of this fact: Even if all of that loss in state funding since 2008 is made up, Alabama would remain among the bottom 10 or so states in per pupil education funding.
The report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said that Alabama is spending $1,242 less per pupil in the upcoming budget year than it did in 2008 after adjusting for inflation. It said that spending per pupil in Alabama declined by more than 20 percent during that span.
While Alabama had the largest drop in actual dollars of any state, it finished second behind Oklahoma (22.8 percent) for the largest percentage drop in spending.
According to the report, Alabama's state spending per pupil will go up just 1 percent in the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1.
Of course, state spending only makes up a portion of the total revenues that school systems in Alabama have to run the schools. The other large revenue streams are locally generated funding and federal funding. And it is in local funding that Alabama falls really short in comparison to other states.
On average, Alabama's 135 school systems generate about $3,100 per pupil, which ranks 43rd in the nation. But that varies dramatically from system to system. In 2012, for instance, Mountain Brook generated $5,976 per pupil from local sources, while Geneva County School System had just $309 per pupil in local revenues. Montgomery County ranks 93rd in local funding with $947 per pupil. Autauga County ranked 129th with $428 per pupil in local funding. Elmore County ranked 107th with $759 per student in local funding.
In the end, what really matters is the total funding available from all sources to provide an education to students. And in that regard, Alabama has about $9,800 per pupil, which ranks the state just 44th in the nation.
But at least the state's school systems are getting some budget relief from an economy that is slowly rebounding, although far from healthy.
Sally Howell, executive director of the Alabama Association of School Boards, notes that most districts are seeing their budgeting picture improve, but stresses that the state still is not where it needs to be.
She said that among the hurdles the state faces is repaying the money borrowed from the state education rainy day fund to get through the tough times of the past five years.
The state dipped into its rainy day account to the tune of $437 million in the 2009 fiscal year, and only $14 million has been repaid. The state hopes to repay about a big chunk of that money from unused revenue when the fiscal year ends next week.
"We need to repay the Rainy Day Fund, which is as it should be," said Howell.
But having to repay that money first clearly slows the pace of school funding recovery.
Back in 2009, the budget picture for many of Alabama's school districts was dismal. Although the state supposedly requires districts to maintain one month's operating reserve in their general funds, 56 districts had less than that. Five districts had a deficit fund balance and 20 districts had two weeks or less of operating reserves. Faced with such small operating reserves, almost half of the state's systems had to establish a line of credit with banks as a hedge against cash flow problems.
But a January 2013 report by the State Department of Education shows a better -- but still ugly -- snapshot of budget conditions. By then, the number of districts with less than a month of operating reserves was down from 56 to 19. The number of districts in the red with operating reserves was two (Franklin and Perry counties). Nine districts had two weeks or less of operating reserves, down from 20 in 2009.
And while those numbers may improve still more in the next snapshot the state department does in a few weeks, many of the state's school districts have adopted budgets for the new fiscal year starting Oct. 1 that still dip into reserves in order to balance the budget.
And remember -- even if school district budgets do make it back to the pre-2008 levels, they almost certainly would only leave Alabama somewhere in the bottom 10 states in per-student funding.
"We're pleased that funding per pupil is improving," said Howell. "But we as a state don't want to lose perspective that total funding per student is still among the lowest in the nation."
So what does that mean for public education in the state? It means that good, proven programs such as the Alabama Reading Initiative or the math and science initiative -- programs that allow Alabama students to catch up to their peers in other states in academic performance -- would remain unavailable to all students in all grades. It means that the state's excellent pre-kindergarten programs would remain unavailable to all but a small minority of children. It means that funding would be scarce for new programs to address the state's abysmal graduation rates.
Funding alone won't solve education problems. But without it, it's almost impossible to apply good solutions -- such as those developed by Alabama over the past decade -- uniformly across the state.
Ken Hare was a longtime Alabama newspaper editorial writer and editorial page editor who now writes a regular column for WSFA's web site. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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