Alabama Directs New State Money into Education

After years of lean budgets, money is flowing into many state treasuries. That's true for Alabama. The state is spending much of the extra money on education, boosting outlays significantly.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Good morning.

After years of hard times, state coffers are showing a surplus. The National Council of State Legislatures says states, combined, have 25 percent more money in their coffers than they did a year ago. State lawmakers have been struggling with budgets since the '90s boom busted and the September 11th terrorist attacks created an economic turndown hurting tax revenues.

INSKEEP: Many states did not count on projected revenue increases as the economy started improving. Now let's not say they don't know what to do with the money, they'll figure out something. Some states are making up for earlier cuts, others are tucking money away for a rainy day.

And we have three reports on how states are responding. First, NPR's Larry Abramson on the fastest-growing area of state spending: education.

LARRY ABRAMSON: Taxpayers may oppose increased spending for many state programs, but these days they are eager to spend more on schools. Corrina Eckel(ph) of the National Conference of State Legislatures says spending for a number of K-12 programs will climb by nearly eight percent in fiscal year 2007.

Ms. CORRINA ECKEL (National Conference of State Legislatures): Everything from increasing the funding in the school formula to increasing teacher salaries to new schoolbooks and technology in the classroom.

ABRAMSON: For years, Medicaid spending was the fastest-growing area of state spending, but now education has taken the lead. And Corrina Eckel says colleges and universities are getting an unusually big boost.

Ms. ECKEL: Higher education tends to fare worse when times are bad because lawmakers see that tuition and fees can help make up for budget cuts. And then when times improve, states typically give higher-than-average increases for higher education just to help make up for those prior cuts.

ABRAMSON: Alabama's surplus has allowed that state to make up some lost ground. Elementary and secondary students will now attend class five days longer, bringing the state up to the national average. And teachers got their second raise in a row, this time a jump up five percent. Sandra Sims-deGraffenried, Executive Director of the Alabama Association of School Boards, says that's dramatic for a state that ranks near the bottom for per-pupil spending.

Ms. SANDRA SIMS-DEGRAFFENRIED: We've come off some really lean years where things have been tough in our state and all of a sudden we now see a budget that has passed that is $6.02 billion. It's the largest budget for education that this state has ever seen.

ABRAMSON: Sims-deGraffenried says recent increases will allow Alabama to chip in $67 per student to pay for textbooks. That's nice, but parents will still have to make up the difference.

States that depend on energy revenues are seeing some of the biggest increases for education. Wyoming has no income tax, but revenue from coal and other energy taxes have allowed the state to set aside $400 million for a scholarship fund for the state's community colleges and its university.

Jim McBride is Wyoming's Superintendent of Education.

Mr. JIM MCBRIDE (Superintendent of Education, Wyoming): And that is enough money to give a large percentage of our students access to those programs at a very, very reasonable rate.

ABRAMSON: Revenue increases are not the only factor that will determine whether schools have more to grow on. California has agreed to reduce class sizes in schools where student performance is worst, but that was in response to a lawsuit by state teachers.

Some critics of school spending say budget increases often do not lead to better instruction. Tim Mooney is with a group called First Class Education, which is pushing state legislatures to mandate that 65 spending of school spending goes to the classroom, not to the educational bureaucracy.

Mr. TIM MOONEY (First Class Education): Nearly every teacher in America in the last two weeks visited a Wal-Mart or an Office Max or Staples and bought basic classroom supplies for their classroom. Why is that, when we're growing at 7.9 percent increase?

ABRAMSON: Still, with teachers getting a sizeable chunk of the increased spending, no one is complaining about extra dollars for schools. But they are wondering, as they always must, whether they will gain or lose ground next year.

Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.

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