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Real budget work begins

By By Rep. Ronald Grantland, guest columnist
This week it is expected that the governor will submit his final version of the 2010 Education and General Fund budget, and the Legislature will then get to work on crafting the spending plan for our schools and state agencies.
We are past the halfway point in the legislative session, and past the point of when the governor usually provides his budgets, but this year there are issues to be resolved before we begin the process.
It is critical to have a reliable economic forecast for next year, not an easy task in this time of downturn and uncertainty. By delaying the budget process for a few months, we gain better insight on what revenue will look like this time next year, especially for our schools.
The sputtering economy has already caused proration of 12.5 percent, reduced to 9 percent by the governor when he released a portion of the Rainy Day fund. Those cuts will need to be put into next year’s budget. The question is will revenue get worse, or will it stabilize along with the economy?
The governor’s original budget plan submitted in February had a tough economic outlook, and cuts that would clearly be a catastrophe for education, calling for the layoffs of thousands of teachers, gutting important programs, and a wholesale retreat on the improvement we’ve made over the past decade. Then the economic stimulus plan passed in Washington, and within it are funds that very well may save our schools, and prevent massive cuts in things like healthcare.
The stimulus is the other reason for the delay in the governor’s final spending plans. Washington only last week released the final rules and regulations on how states may spend the assistance, and the delay is a small price to pay for what assistance our schools and other programs will be getting.
The final figures were just released, and Alabama will receive approximately $1.3 billion for education assistance over the next two years, to be split between K-12 and colleges and universities who have also been hard hit by cuts and proration.
While we may have different viewpoints on spending from Washington, it is hard to criticize the idea of making sure that thousands of teachers stay in the classroom, that class sizes do not increase, that programs for our children are not gutted, and the hard won progress is not cast aside.
And progress there has been. Researchers at Johns Hopkins just released a study that found Alabama ranked in the top five states with the greatest increase in graduation rates during 2002 to 2006. According to the report, Alabama’s graduation rate increased 4.1 percent. While our state still ranks low in overall graduation, such a jump bodes well and shows the investments we’ve made are paying dividends.
Alabama’s graduation rate according to state officials was 83 percent last year, though the Johns Hopkins study cited a lower number. The good news on graduation rates is one in a series of stories showing progress in our schools.
Last year Alabama had the largest jump in fourth grade reading scores in the nation, and one of the largest ever recorded. These good early reading scores will translate into more success in the future, and an even better graduation rate.
The hard work of our teachers and innovations like the homegrown Alabama Reading Initiative, along with smaller class sizes and more classroom materials all contribute to the amazing progress.
All of this was at-risk, and now may be saved with the assistance from Washington.
There is not much time left in this legislative session. The governor will submit his spending plan, along with his final direction on how the federal assistance will be spent, and then the House will get to work on the final budgets.
We are in a better place than we were back at the beginning of February. While the belt-tightening will continue, it looks like we can avoid catastrophic cuts that seemed all but unavoidable just months ago.
In this economy, and for next year’s budget, that is no small accomplishment.

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