Collins: Legislature takes decisive action on education

Collins: Legislature takes decisive action on education
By State Rep. Terri Collins 

Often lost among the more provocative and controversial bills that generate headlines and hullabaloo during legislative sessions are the solid policy measures designed to address long-standing problems endemic to state government.

As the chair of the House Education Policy Committee, I can attest that we passed more than two dozen bills and measures to support our teachers and administrators, improve classroom instruction, and increase test scores and outcomes in a variety of subjects.

For the fourth consecutive year, the Legislature approved an Education Trust Fund budget with record funding, which, at $8.3 billion, makes historic investments in K-12 public schools, community colleges, and public four-year institutions, and each of these record budgets have been implemented without having to declare the painful, mid-year budget cuts known as proration.

It is important to note, in fact, that proration occurred on an average of every other year when Democrats controlled the Legislature, but as a result of responsible budgeting practices that have since been put in place, proration has been avoided in each of the dozen years under Republican leadership.  A generation of students and teachers will soon avoid experiencing the chaos that accompanies prorating the budget.

Included within the budget were the most generous pay raises awarded to public school educators in decades.  Like other states across the nation, Alabama is experiencing a dramatic shortage of classroom teachers, so pass both targeted pay raises for new instructors and substantial salary increases for veteran educators in order o help us recruit, retain, and re-entice desperately needed personnel.

Additional incentives, such as improved retirement benefits and loan forgiveness, were also enacted in order to attract teachers to particularly difficult-to-staff subjects like math and science and to geographic areas where the need is the greatest.

Funding increases for the Alabama Reading Initiative, commonly known as ARI, and the Literacy Act, two innovative programs designed to increase reading scores across the state; the Alabama Math, Science, and Technology Initiative; and the state’s nationally-recognized “First Class” pre-kindergarten program, which is the model for our new emphasis on funneling auxiliary teachers into K-3 classrooms, were included in the budget, as well.

Recognizing the need to focus laser-like attention upon increasing math scores across the state, an entirely new education program was also created and funded by the Legislature.

Recent standardized test results revealed that Alabama currently ranks 52nd in the nation in math scores, a particularly embarrassing statistic when you consider that there are only 50 states in the union.  Only 22% of Alabama students were proficient in math on the 2021 ACAP state assessment, including only 11% of low-income students and 7% of black students.  In addition, 28 K-5 schools in Alabama currently have ZERO percent of students proficient in math.

A state that designed the rockets that took men to the moon and today houses factories that rely upon advanced engineering to manufacture state-of-the art automobiles, airplanes, and weaponry must not be content for its students to wallow at the bottom of math skills.

The newly-created Numeracy Act will follow the model set by proven successful programs like ARI and the Alabama Literacy Act in order to concentrate educational resources on an obvious problem in need of addressing.

Much like ARI raised reading scores statewide by placing specially-trained reading coaches in public schools, the Numeracy Act will locate specially-trained math coaches in areas where they are needed.  It also allows the State Department of Education to intervene in schools that continue to perform below expected levels even after additional educational resources are put in place.

A new Office of Mathematics Improvement within the State Department of Education will be tasked with ensuring that students are at or above grade-level proficiency in math by the fifth grade, and it will be held accountable for results.

As part of the first major overhaul and reform of state mental health services since Gov. Lurleen Wallace’s administration, the Legislature passed a measure requiring each school system across Alabama to employ a mental health service coordinator.  This effort goes hand-in-glove with the findings of the state’s Emergency Task Force on School Safety and Security that I chaired in response to a series of school shootings across the nation in 2018.

The COVID-19 pandemic lockdown and at-home instruction for students that resulted certainly reinforced the importance of access to high-speed broadband Internet in rural Alabama.  When circumstances force reliance on classes and instruction through Zoom and other technology services, no student should be left behind because necessary Internet access is unavailable in the area where they reside.  Much progress has been and continues to be made in the effort, and the Legislature appropriated another $243 million to spur broadband expansion.

Additional bills such as those related to Accountability Act scholarships, which allow children from low-income homes to escape failing schools for those that perform well; the textbook selection process; English language learners; public school registrations for transferring military families; cybersecurity; school construction; and others were also passed this session.

While the media devotes the majority of headlines and spotlight to the measures that produce Internet clicks and provoke strong feelings among liberals and conservatives alike, please know that the House Education Policy Committee and my colleagues in the Legislature are constantly working to improve public education for students, teachers, and parents across the state.

Alabama is a special place to live, work, worship, and raise a family, and taking our public schools to the next level will simply make an already great state even better.

Elected to represent Alabama’s House District 8 in 2010, State Rep. Terri Collins (R – Decatur) serves as chair of the House Education Policy Committee and holds a seat on the budget-writing committee for K-12 public schools, community colleges, and public universities.