Protect education by keeping state budgets separate

Lawmakers in Montgomery were called into special session this month to determine their course of action in addressing a massive deficit in the state general fund budget. As students at The University of Alabama and residents of this state, we have a vested interest in the outcome of this debate. One idea that has been proposed is to combine the state education budget with the general fund budget in order to create one budget. 

The argument for this proposal is that much of the state's revenue is earmarked for certain purposes, reducing the legislature's discretion to allocate funding when state revenue fails to meet its expenses. We are one of only a few states to operate under two separate budgets. This fiscal year, the education budget is expected to receive more funding than it was set to spend. The solution proposed by some is to eliminate the current earmarking to allow for that "surplus" in education to be spent on general fund obligations like prisons and healthcare.

While the idea makes logical sense, there is the possibility for a very dangerous precedent to be set. Public education in the state of Alabama is in no way overfunded. When cost of living and insurance expenses are accounted for, Alabama public school teachers earn less than they did before the recession. K-12 funding has not been restored to previous levels and higher education funding has continuously taken hits. This is partially why tuition rates regularly increase at state universities. With the ability to freely take money away from education, legislators would be given the freedom to neglect public schools to the same degree that they have neglected state troopers (who maintain only a fraction of the force needed) or the prison system (which is at risk of federal intervention due to overcrowding).                               

Education is the driving force behind progress and economic prosperity within the modern community, and treating it as we have treated other public services would be disastrous for the future of our state. State earmarks for education serve as protection from a state legislature that is more than willing to cut from any and all state services, including Lake Lurleen State Park in Tuscaloosa County, in order to respond to Alabama’s routine budget shortfalls caused by our state’s structural financial problems.

Growing up in a strong school district in Alabama gave me a special appreciation for the service public schools can provide society when they are managed effectively and supported by the surrounding community. Good school teachers are a vital asset to our state, as they have the potential to develop young minds to think critically and lead in their future career fields. Any discussion on how to advance our state should focus on providing the resources necessary for these institutions to be successful, not providing a means for future school funding to be siphoned away to pay for needs that are directly related to a lacking education system.

Simply throwing money at education does not bring about desired results, but failing to provide resources for educators sets our state significantly behind others and reduces our workforce's competitiveness in attracting new industries. A strong public school system provides the means for economic mobility within society, and if we are interested in actually addressing the root of many of the societal issues that put demands on public resources, we will start by refusing to allow our education system to bear the brunt of our state's budgeting woes.

Hunter Richey is a junior majoring in economics and political science. 

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