A no-nonsense approach

Published 9:53 pm Tuesday, January 31, 2012

By David Colston

The Bentley Administration recently announced its education priorities for the next legislative session. Anyone who works in schools, who has children in school, or who cares about education knows that the governor’s agenda will not address the critical needs of education in Alabama. It’s like he is living on another planet.

Not once did the governor mention restoring the cuts that have devastated Alabama’s schools. The economic downturn that started in 2007 triggered some of the deepest funding losses in state history. We’ve gone through a record number of consecutive years of proration, resulting in lost funding for several innovative programs we know help student achievement.

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This school year, we are spending more than 20 percent less than we did before the recession. It is the fourth straight year of budget cuts and funding levels that don’t even cover the basics.

We’ve lost more than 3,000 teachers from the classroom in that time, and caused class sizes to increase. For the teachers that remain, classroom supply money has been slashed to a pittance, forcing teachers to reach deeper into their pockets to meet the basics needs of their classrooms.

Because of these budget cuts, we haven’t bought textbooks in years. That’s right – years! The annual appropriation for textbooks has been suspended for quite some time now. And even before the economic downturn we only replaced textbooks about every seven years.

Think about it. Life for a high school textbook is hard.

It gets used multiple times everyday. It is opened in class, taken in and out of lockers, and in and out of backpacks that get thrown around in the bus, at school or at home. It is spread out on the kitchen table. It is sometimes underlined, bookmarked by bending pages, and stretched to stay open on a particular page during homework or study hall. The used book is then given to another student the following year.

Even in the best of times, textbook coordinators have to resort to some interesting tricks to keep a typical textbook alive even after a few years. Duck tape on bindings is the old stand-by, so often used that some Alabama students must believe that grey is the natural color of a textbook. When the textbook is really falling apart, some resourceful textbook coordinators resort to plastic cable ties through the pages to hold it together, insert photocopies for missing pages, and cardboard replacements for torn covers.

Since we haven’t budgeted for textbooks in years, some are well beyond even the seven-year cycle. What does it say to our children about the importance of education when we hand them a ratty, dog-eared textbook that is falling apart and has pages missing? It says that school is not important.

Democrats in the House of Representatives are sponsoring a bill that would require we provide students with textbooks no more than five years old. It is common sense legislation, one of a string of bills that will focus on supplying the basics and supporting our children’s schools. We offer plans to reduce class size, support hard working educators, and fully fund important programs we know work, but are not in every school due funding constraints.

This is in stark contrast to the governor’s and the Republican Supermajority’s agenda. Because of the Rolling Reserve Act passed by the Republican Supermajority and signed into law by Governor Bentley, Alabama’s schools will undergo another $108 million in cuts next year.

These cuts do not need to happen.

There is enough revenue available to avoid a record fifth year of slashed school budgets. In fact, there is enough funding to finally buy new textbooks.

Yet, the governor says his hands are tied by the new, arcane and arbitrary budget law. Cuts are demanded by it, and cuts he will propose. Ridiculous.

If the Republican Supermajority continues to refuse to fund even the basic needs of our schools, then everything else in their education “agenda” is nonsense.