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Final work on the education budget begins

By Staff
Johnny Mack Morrow
This week the education budget is front and center for the Legislature.
The governor submitted his final version of his school spending plan, and now it is time for the House and Senate to get to work.
While it seems pretty far along in the session for the budget to come up, the delay was necessary in order to understand what will happen with the economy next year, and how federal assistance could be used in order to close a widening budget gap.
It is one of the worst situations in decades for education revenue.
Alabama funds schools primarily with state sales and income taxes, and both of these earmarked funding streams have been hard hit by the current economic troubles.
The proposed education budget is approximately $5.64 billion, or $182 million less than the current school-year budget.
We are in the midst of a 12.5 percent proration called by the governor earlier this year. He has drawn down half of the available Rainy Day funds in order to reduce the cuts to 9 percent.
Hopefully, he will draw down the other half at the end of summer to reduce cuts down to 6.5 percent, but that is the administration's call and he may leave the proration figure as it is.
However, with either less or no Rainy Day funds available next year and the economic forecast still either flat or predicting continued recession, the 2010 education budget was looking at a massive shortfall.
In order to understand just how poor revenue is, just two years ago the state education budget stood at $6.7 billion.
That means in just a span of a few years education revenue has dropped more than 15 percent.
Without a way to make up such a devastating shortfall, schools were looking at letting go up to 8,000 teachers and support personnel, and every program implemented to improve schools undertaken in the last decade would have been slashed to the bone. More education layoffs were predicted than at any time in a generation, and Alabama was at-risk of losing every bit of the hard won progress attained in the last decade.
It was as stark a budget situation as anyone could remember.
Then at the end of February, Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, otherwise known as the economic stimulus package.
Within the stimulus, there was $1.3 billion over two years in direct aid to the state to help fill widening gaps in education budgets.
It was designed specifically to help prevent massive teacher layoffs.
While most of Alabama's congressional delegation voted against the package, and there has been some opposition to the aid, there is no doubt that the federal funding will save our schools and thousands of teaching jobs.
The stimulus was first and foremost supposed to be about jobs. With recent news that Alabama's unemployment jumped to nine percent for the first time since 1986, saving education jobs is an important outcome for our state, especially in rural counties.
The last draft of the governor's education budget includes the federal stimulus money, which filled in a big part of the gap, but not all.
However, his budget would still leave up to 5,000 teachers and support personnel losing their jobs.
Every job is critical in this economy, and there looks to be a way to save those jobs.
So the legislative work now comes down to crafting a budget that saves jobs and protects vital programs like the initiatives in Reading, Math and Science.
The belt will have to be tightened harder than it ever has before, but with some assistance and some careful planning, we can protect our schools.
That is a much better outcome than most thought was possible at the beginning of this legislative session.
Johnny Mack Morrow is a state representative for Franklin County. His column appears each Wednesday.