Alabama has some of the worst schools in the nation. In fact, only Mississippi and the District of Columbia are ranked as worse according to a 2014 WalletHub study. That didn’t seem to matter on September 15, 2015, though, when Alabama’s Republican-led state Senate approved transferring $100 million from the education budget to the general fund.
Evaluated against criteria such as dropout rates, student-to-teacher ratios, and math and reading scores, Alabama regularly performs poorly. During the 2012-2013 academic year, only 25% of Grade 8 students in Alabama were reading at or above a proficient level, and compared to neighboring states Georgia, Tennessee, and Mississippi, Alabama’s eight graders fared the worst in mathematics. Despite this, Alabama has a comparatively low dropout rate, and a graduation rate that sits right about at the national average.
That means that it’s not a lack of access to education that has Alabama students preforming so poorly, it’s the education they’re receiving in schools that’s letting them down. With the public schools in such bad shape, it makes residents wonder why the money was siphoned off at all.
The short answer is that Alabama is in a bind. The state needs to find a way to cover a $200 million shortfall in the budget for the state’s General Fund for the pending fiscal year. The General Fund pays for a number of things, but its two main expenses are big ones that are exceptionally difficult to reduce or cut – Medicade and the prison system.
This year, Medicade will cost the General Fund around $685 million, with the prison system coming in at $394 million. Alabama has been struggling to come up with money for the Fund for some time, relying on non-recurring or not easily replenished sources like federal stimulus, oil and gas royalties, and proceeds from lawsuits to fill the gap. Those sources have all been drained now, and the state is left to find a way to make up the gap that’s been starting it in the face for years.
The choice to draw from the Education Trust Fund comes from the hearty tax revenue the fund receives, some of which gets put into a stabilization fund, set up to offset school budget cuts when there is an economic downturn. Champions of redirecting the money argued that it was irresponsible of the state to have money lying in wait for a rainy day when the state is in need of money now. Others argued that this exact type of approach is what causes the need for the stabilization fund in the first place.
The Medicaid Matter
Arguments in opposition factor something else into the matter, too. With so much of the General Fund used to cover Medicaid, attention turned to Governor Robert Bentley, who earlier in the year rejected Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act. Under the Act, the federal government would pay for 100% of expansion costs for the first 3 years, and 90% from there on out.
State Democrats like Senator Bobby Singleton point to the redistribution of funds as a cop-out, arguing that funds to help Medicaid expansion could alleviate some of the General Fund’s shortcomings. Governor Bentley was even cited as saying that the expansion would siphon millions away from the education budget by 2016 if accepted. Instead, its rejection is seeing $100 million moved away from Alabama schools.
The burden is then shifted to the school children – the ones who consistently underperform because of the lack of quality education available to them, and the ones who will have no stabilizing resources to help them maintain their academic careers as the state takes money out of its hemorrhaging school system.
The Final Word
If there’s even a slight glimmer of hope in this matter, it’s that the move isn’t final yet. The Senate approved moving twice as much money away from education as the House of Representatives approved the week prior. That means there’s still a small chance that the school funds might be saved. However, with Democratic filibusters already a failure and a Governor that’s bound and determined to find money without working with the federal government on Medicaid or increasing taxes on state businesses, the future looks less than optimistic for the already-struggling Alabama school system.