Ken Hare In Depth: School funding picture improves, but still not pretty

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - A recent national report paints an ugly picture of education funding inAlabama, pointing out that the state had the biggest loss of per-pupil statefunding 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 thateroded since the economy faltered in 2008, with all  of the state's 135school systems getting  out of the red and many of them starting toreplace the reserve funds that withered away during the national economiccrisis.

However, any discussion of the state's public school funding must not losesight of this fact: Even if all of that loss in state funding since 2008 ismade up, Alabama would remain among the bottom 10 or so states in per pupileducation funding.

The report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said that Alabama isspending $1,242 less per pupil in the upcoming budget year than it did in 2008after adjusting for inflation. It said that spending per pupil in Alabamadeclined by more than 20 percent during that span.

While Alabama had the largest drop in actual dollars of any state, it finishedsecond behind Oklahoma (22.8 percent) for the largest percentage drop inspending.

According to the report, Alabama's state spending per pupil will go up just 1percent in the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1.

Of course, state spending only makes up a portion of the total revenues thatschool systems in Alabama have to run the schools. The other large revenuestreams are locally generated  funding and federal funding. And it is inlocal 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 tosystem. In 2012, for instance, Mountain Brook generated $5,976 per pupil from local sources, while Geneva County School System had just $309 perpupil in local revenues. Montgomery County ranks 93rd in local funding with$947 per pupil. Autauga County ranked 129th with $428 per pupil in localfunding. Elmore County ranked 107th with $759 per student in local funding.

In the end, what really matters is the total funding available from all sourcesto 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 relieffrom an economy that is slowly rebounding, although far from healthy.

Sally Howell, executive director of the Alabama Association of SchoolBoards, 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 borrowedfrom the state education rainy day fund to get through the tough times of thepast five years.

The state dipped into its rainy day account to the tune of $437 million in the2009 fiscal year, and only $14 million has been repaid. The state hopes torepay about a big chunk of that money from unused revenue when the fiscal yearends next week.

"Weneed 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 fundingrecovery.

Back in2009, the budget picture for many of Alabama's school districts was dismal.Although the state supposedly requires districts to maintain one month'soperating reserve in their general funds, 56 districts had less than that. Fivedistricts had a deficit fund balance and 20 districts had two weeks or less ofoperating reserves. Faced with such small operating reserves, almost half ofthe state's systems had to establish a line of credit with banks as a hedgeagainst 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 ofdistricts 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 (Franklinand Perry counties). Nine districts had two weeks or less of operatingreserves, down from 20 in 2009.

And while those numbers may improve still more in the next snapshot the statedepartment does in a few weeks, many of the state's school districts haveadopted budgets for the new fiscal year starting Oct. 1 that still dip intoreserves in order to balance thebudget.

And remember -- even if school district budgets do make it back to the pre-2008levels, they almost certainly would only leave Alabama somewhere in the bottom10 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 perstudent 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 scienceinitiative -- programs that allow Alabama students to catch up to their peersin other states in academic performance -- would remain unavailable to allstudents in all grades. It means that the state's excellent pre-kindergartenprograms would remain unavailable to all but a small minority of children. Itmeans that funding would be scarce for new programs to address the state'sabysmal graduation rates.

Funding alone won't solve education problems. But without it, it's almostimpossible to apply good solutions -- such as those developed by Alabama overthe past decade -- uniformly across the state.


Ken Hare was a longtime Alabama newspaper editorial writer and editorialpage editor who now writes a regular column for WSFA's web site. Email him at

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