Lawmakers discuss education pay raises, a focus on literacy and learning loss

Lawmakers discuss education pay raises, a focus on literacy and learning loss

By CAROLINE BECK and MARY SELL Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Pay raises for teachers are possible in next year’s state education budget, as are more school nurses, a greater focus on literacy and catching students up from learning loss left over from the COVID-19 pandemic.

That’s according to spending proposals discussed by state education leaders and lawmakers at budget hearings in the State House Tuesday.

In all, the Alabama Department of Education is requesting a total increase of more than $400 million to $5.1 billion. Some of that increase is focused on literacy efforts and the 2019 reading requirements approved by lawmakers.

“We have to keep pushing literacy and we absolutely have to keep pushing math,” State Superintendent Eric Mackey said Tuesday when asked about priorities. “…We’ve got to make sure our teachers get high-quality (professional development) and are ready to roll forward with really understanding math teaching at a deeper level.”

Pay raises for teachers are on the table, according to Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, who chairs the Senate education budget committee. He said Gov. Kay Ivey has expressed interest in raises as well.

Orr said he and House education budget chairman Rep. Bill Poole, R-Tuscaloosa, have discussed targeted pay increases for teachers involved in professional development and to attract more STEM teachers.

“We cannot compete with the private sector when it comes to truly certified STEM qualified individuals, so to attract them, what do you have to do, you have to pay them,” Orr said.

How much and where federal money from the CARES Act is being used for education in the state will also be a factor for budgeting, so as to not duplicate efforts, but Orr also wants to see what the coronavirus may do to schools in the near future.

“We don’t know what lies ahead with the virus,” Orr said. “As far as budgeting, do we budget every dollar we have or do we hold some back like we did last year, and I think that gave us a real cushion of relief as far as not having to worry about so much if the state did have to recede when it comes to closures or if the virus is causing a real problem with the economy.”

State leaders also discussed their concerns about the amount of learning loss happening currently with Alabama students. Orr said he  thinks summer school, extended school days, before and after school tutoring are going to be utilized much more in the coming months to help reduce backsliding.

“We’ve got a lot of catching up to do and I think everyone realizes that and it’s just going to take more time and effort but also with that we need to compensate our educators for all that additional effort they’re going to have to be putting into it,” Orr said.

Mackey also said COVID has highlighted the need for more school nurses. More career tech opportunities in middle school is another priority, he said.

Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, said on Tuesday he likes the idea of more after-school programming and tutoring but says more still needs to be done to expand broadband and internet capabilities across the state.

“We’re going to have to build a robust system for broadband across the state,” Singleton said. “That’s what COVID has shown us and if we don’t get that done then our children are going to continue to be left behind.”

Singleton’s district, located in the rural black belt area, continues to see a lack of broadband access as well as most rural parts of the state.

The Department of Early Education is asking for a $24.4 million increase in 2022 for its pre-K education program. That increase would allow it to reach 44% of Alabama’s 4-year-olds, including the 3,000 who are on waiting lists. The pre-K now reaches about 37% of 4-year-olds. The goal is to reach 70% by 2026, department Secretary Barbara Cooper said.

The department received a total of $132.2 million this year.

Cooper also requested that if K-12 educators receive raises next year, educators in her department receive it also.

“Ensuring we can retain our workforce is vital to protecting quality,” Cooper said.

The Alabama Community College System is asking for about a 10% increase in 2022 funding, including a 7.5% increase, $25.3 million, directly to colleges’ operations and maintenance funds.

More money for dual enrollment and industrial career certificates is also a priority, system Chancellor Jimmy Baker told lawmakers.

The Alabama Commission on Higher Education’s 3.27% increase request includes a 19.3% increase for the Alabama Student Assistance Program, Alabama’s need-based aid program. This year’s budget included $5.9 million for the program.

The current year state education budget, including K-12 funding, is about $7.2 billion; $1.8 billion of that is dedicated to higher education.

On Wednesday and Thursday, lawmakers will hear budget requests from some General Fund agencies. Because of COVID-19 concerns, budget hearings were not open to the public.

The Legislature’s 2021 regular session begins Feb. 2. Gov. Kay Ivey is expected to unveil her complete budget proposals the next day.

Agency leaders’ presentations are available here. http://lsa.state.al.us/news_detail.aspx?ID=14247.