Monday, January 02, 2006

Schoolhouse rocks

After his trial balloon about returning the projected Education Trust Fund surplus to taxpayers went over like a lead balloon with key Democratic leaders, Gov. Bob Riley has unveiled Plan B: Use the money as part of a $500 million school construction and technology project. The initiative would include $50 million to go toward a biomedical research center at UAB.

The plan would distribute money based on enrollment to every public school system in the state, prompting Alabama Education Association executive secretary Paul Hubbert, whose power in Montgomery is impossible to overestimate, to denounce it as "an election-year proposal because politicians love bricks and mortar. They love to see their name on the sign outside the school." Hubbert plans to push, as he has for umpteen years, for higher teacher salaries and more teachers.

A massive, highly visible school repair program naturally would be a political boon for Riley, but House Minority Leader Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, is right to note as a practical matter that above-average tax revenues aren't annual occurrences and that lean years could make it difficult to meet recurring obligations created in more prosperous times. In that regard, at least, infrastructure investments would seem to be a wise move. On the flip side, Alabama teachers' pay hasn't kept pace with cost-of-living increases over the last decade, so a need remains there, too.

One final observation: I haven't seen the details, but at least on the surface, I'm uncomfortable with Riley's proposal to spend $35 million from one of the state's rainy-day education funds while the budgetary sun is shining. As a general matter, I'd prefer to see that money left alone, or perhaps consolidated into the state's larger rainy-day fund.

In the end, I expect a compromise between Hubbert and Riley, with Hubbert, as he did last year, getting slightly more of what he wants than Riley does. It's significant to note, though, that the debate over the education budget has shifted in a month's time from whether the surplus should be spent on public schools to how it should be spent on public schools. On that point, the education lobby already can claim a victory.


Blogger Hanging by the News said...

I think that as a rule, construction projects should be made sooner than later since construction costs tend to only get higher over the years, but priorities need to be given to those schools in disrepair and those filled to capacity. I don't know if every school system in the state has at least one school that fits those qualifications, and I think by distributing the funds by student population, some well-off systems are going to stay that way and poorer systems won't get as many funds as they need.

By all but promising that every system would see some funds, Riley's trying not to alienate any voters. But I think the state of education in Alabama would be better off if only the systems that need the construction funds receive those funds. Legislators need to get all the schools in the state to at least some base level, some kind of standard. That also goes for curriculum and technology standards.

Hubbert's right that politicians love to see their name on a building - every school building tends to have the names of the governor and the school board members, among others. But that plaque that may stroke the egos of politicians is a small price to pay if schools are falling apart or if students and staff members are breathing in toxic molds (it happens).

Although teachers' salaries ought to at least be at the national average, paying teachers well won't help our kids if they're crowded in decrepit surroundings and learning from ancient computers and textbooks.

And you have a point that some of the funds in the rainy-day fund should be saved for those rainy days, but with so many needs now and every year, it's just too hard to say no to spending that money. I can't remember who said it, but someone once told me that "no one in education every says they have enough money."

2:46 PM  
Blogger Alabamian said...

It's important for lawmakers to show restraint and tap into rainy-day funds only in emergencies or when necessary to stave off proration. Neither seems to be the case right now.

You're right about some systems having many more repair and expansion needs than others, and in an ideal world, that's how the money for any statewide school construction project would be allocated. But it's an election year in this world, and legislators especially love to bring home the bacon to their districts in election years.

1:00 AM  
Blogger Hanging by the News said...

Of course, Alabama's education budget would be a bit sunnier if voters that say they support education would put their money where their mouth is and vote for a lottery or tax plan that would benefit education.

As it is now, most voters will say "more money for education" but add "not from me."

2:27 PM  
Blogger Jeff said...

I know the standard politician stances get amplified in election years...

Prisons: NIMBY - not in my back yard

Landfills, or airports: BANANA - build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything

... but has anyone come up with one for Education?

Build Up Lower Level Schools - Help Increase Teacher Salaries. Too obvious.

It needs to include something about being aimed at voters who aren't paying close attention; lip service; etc.

3:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Money can go not only for construction projects but also to help systems pay off debt from previous construction/repairs/renovations, according to the Bham News article. It sounds like a home run.

7:17 PM  
Blogger King Cockfight said...

I will only support this plan if it provides funds for a statue and commemorative plaque at my high school to mark the 10th anniversary of the time we caught that guy jacking off in the ag/shop building's bathroom.

Someone has to preserve that priceless look embarrassed disappointment on his face, and it might as well be the state of Alabama.

9:32 AM  

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