There’s something else on the ballot
By By Rep. Ronald Grantland, Guest Columnist
If you are reading the newspaper, watching television, or listening to the radio, then you know one thing is absolutely certain: Election Day is coming.
The entire country is glued to the presidential election, and no matter what happens on Nov. 4, it will be an historic day. While Alabama hasn’t seen either of the presidential candidates campaigning here, we still get a sense of the election through the news generated in other states. There are other competitive races here in Alabama on the state and local level, and hopefully the interest they generate will bring record numbers of Alabamians to the polls to cast their vote.
While we are in the voting booth, there will be one other important issue on the ballot that is being overshadowed by the campaigns. Way down at the end of the ballot will be Amendment One, and that measure could have as much of an impact on your family and community as anything else you cast your vote on.
If passed, Amendment One will expand the state’s rainy day fund for education.
It will also for the first time create a rainy day fund for the state General Fund, the part of the state budget that pays for everything from public safety to health care. If it does not pass, it is almost certain that proration will be declared and devastating across-the-board spending cuts will be made this year, and who knows what will happen to important non-education services.
The state constitutional rainy day fund is essentially a line of credit that education can use in times of economic trouble. The state can borrow up to $248 million from the Alabama Trust Fund, the $3.35 billion account generated by state offshore oil and gas leases, and pay it back in five years. Right now there is no credit line for the General Fund.
Amendment One expands the credit line for education to approximately $440 million, or about 6.5 percent of the entire education budget. It also expands the time allowed to pay the money back to the Alabama Trust Fund from five years to six. It is never the best solution to borrow, but the alternative is much worse, and this is no ordinary time for our economy, for our state, or for our country.
Our state has declared proration 15 times since 1950, and there is no uglier thing for schools than to slash their budget in the middle of a school year. Programs are gutted, teachers are laid off, class sizes grow, and it takes years for schools to recover. With the economy faltering, it looks like there will be a substantial shortfall in revenue this year.
Alabama education has proven itself over the past decade to use taxpayer dollars effectively, and we have seen tremendous progress in our schools when we’ve made investments.
Because of budget issues and limited education revenue, it took eight years to grow the Alabama Reading Initiative from a few schools to implementing it in every school. The nationally renowned program has improved teaching and learning in our schools, with Alabama seeing the highest jump in reading scores in the country. We have now started to implement the Alabama Math, Science and Technology Initiative along the same lines, and have plans to have it in at least half of the state’s schools by the beginning of next year.
But these programs, and the progress they create, are at-risk if proration is declared. The schools have kept up with their end of the bargain: every time we’ve invested more money into schools they have delivered with better student achievement.
And quite frankly, there is more we could invest in education that has been proven to work, like voluntary pre-kindergarten, expansion of distance learning, and better vocational programs. But the problems with the economy, and the reduction of state sales and income tax revenue that is the mainstay of education funding, will rule out any expansion of programs for the foreseeable future.
What Amendment One does is simply to make sure we don’t lose what we already have. We’ve used the rainy day fund before and we’ve paid it back. We’ve seen the devastating effects of proration, and we know that it is a stain upon our state.
This measure is a temporary fix to help us get over the economic crisis without hurting our children’s future.
Election Day will give you many choices; please don’t forget the choice at the bottom of the ballot that will determine the fate of our schools this year.