MONTGOMERY — Teachers expecting a 2 percent pay raise may need to trim their expectations a bit, after an Alabama Senate committee approved a budget proposal that would increase their pay only 1 percent.
The Senate Ways and Means Education Committee — which controls the education purse-strings — voted Wednesday in favor of a $5.77 billion proposed education budget that would also cut 1 percent from the state's universities and pull back on Gov. Robert Bentley's plan to expand the state's pre-kindergarten system.
"The new normal of the economy is bringing us a lot of challenges," said Sen. Trip Pittman, chairman of the committee.
Teachers would have received a 2 percent pay raise in 2014 under a budget passed by the House of Representatives earlier this month. That budget also included an increase in pre-K spending from $19 million per year to $31 million — a move that pre-K advocates saw as the first step in a 10-year plan to make pre-kindergarten available to all the state's 4-year-olds.
The Senate's proposed budget, however, pulled back on those plans. The Senate version, Pittman said, included only a 1 percent teacher pay raise with an additional 1 percent one-time bonus that would kick in if state revenues exceed projections. Pittman's budget would increase pre-K funding by $6 million — half the increase the governor requested.
JSU President William Meehan said even the House version of the budget didn’t provide enough to make up for the added $750,000 the university will have to pay into the retirement system next year.
“What that means is that Alabama's Senate is continuing to keep Alabama among the states that have the highest cuts in recent years to appropriations for higher education,” he said.
Pittman said the change to the pay raise would free $33 million that could be used to help pay back money borrowed from a state trust fund several years ago. That debt — expected to be about $200 million at the end of 2013 — must be repaid by 2015, Pittman said.
Pittman said the Alabama Accountability Act, a school tax-credit program passed earlier this year, would cost the education budget between $30 million and $40 million in 2014. House projections had the amount at $60 million.
Democrats on the committee said teachers could have had a larger pay raise if the Legislature had not passed the the Accountability Act.
"It boils down to whether we're going to deal with this accountability bill" or fund the teacher pay raise, said Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham.
The Accountability Act has become a wild card in the state’s budget negotiations. The bill provides a tax credit to families of students zoned for “failing” schools who choose to go to private or non-failing public schools. Because there’s no official list of “failing” schools, and some disagreement about who would qualify for the tax credit, hard estimates of the bill’s budget impact have been hard to come by.
Pittman said his budget set aside $40 million to offset potential revenue losses through the program, though he expected the real budget impact would be closer to $30 million or $35 million. Still, Pittman said his estimate was based on the idea that the tax credit wouldn’t apply to students already in private schools. Give the tax credit to current private school students, he said, and the cost would be closer to $60 million.
Accountability Act changes move forward
Another Senate committee approved a bill Wednesday that would guarantee that students currently in private schools would indeed be eligible for the tax credit. That bill, introduced by Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, would make a number of changes to the Accountability Act to address issues brought up by school superintendents and other educators.
Marsh’s bill would allow schools to reject students who want to transfer from failing schools in other districts and adjust the Accountability Act’s definition of a failing school. At present, the Accountability Act includes a rule that would see schools in the bottom 10 percent on academic performance on the failing list. Marsh’s bill would suspend that requirement in 2017, with the adoption of a lettered grading system for schools.
The eligibility and failing-schools changes matter to the education budget, because either could dramatically change the number of students eligible for the tax credit.
Some legislators proposed that the tax credit include an income cap, to block tax credits for wealthy parents with children already in private schools.
Sen. Bill Holtzclaw, R-Madison, said “there are instances when the proverbial millionaire” chooses to live in a city with a failing school system.
The committee didn’t vote on a separate bill by Pittman that would have limited tax credits to students who had attended failing public schools, and limited failing schools to the bottom 5 percent of schools in academic performance.
State schools Superintendent Tommy Bice said he preferred Pittman’s 5 percent proposal. Under the 10 percent option, he said, many schools with strong academic improvement over recent years would be labeled as failing.
Bice said he wasn’t prepared to say whether any Anniston schools would be on the failing schools list. He said he probably wouldn’t release a list until all changes to the Accountability Act passed or failed.
“I keep making a list, and every time I come to one of these meetings, the conditions change,” he said.
The education budget could come to a vote in the full Senate as early as Thursday.
Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.