On the morning of Tuesday, March 7, Birmingham City Schools’ Interim Superintendent Dr. Larry Contri walked across the rainy parking lot of the Highland Park Racquet Club. He was there to vote for the continuation of a property tax, the renewal of which he said would provide $100 million in funding for 12 public school systems in Jefferson County — including $23 million in unrestricted funds for Birmingham City Schools — over the next 30 years.
A Birmingham City Schools press release from the day before labeled the vote as “critical.”
“Without this funding, every public school system within Jefferson County would suffer,” the release read. “Schools would be forced to make devastating cuts in current services and programs,” possibly including “the elimination of curricular and extracurricular programs, the closure and/or consolidation of schools, the elimination of bus routes, [and] the reduction of personnel.”
On Tuesday, the future of that funding seemed at the mercy of the weather; rain is often considered a voter deterrent, even for presidential elections. Contri, for one, didn’t seem worried. “We’re hoping for a big turnout regardless of the weather, and the people in Birmingham I know will not disappoint me,” he told a group of reporters. “We saturated the city with the good word to go and vote today for the students.”
In the days leading up to March 7, the tax had become the subject of an awareness campaign that bore the name “Vote for Students,” which placed yard signs bearing the phrase throughout the county. The campaign’s messaging was even more apocalyptic than Contri’s press release. The potential failure of the vote to pass, the campaign’s website read, “is not something we want to talk about. … If we do not renew this funding it will be devastating. No one wants to talk about this so let’s just make sure we renew the $100 million needed by our kids.”
In many ways, the campaign embodied what has been a recurring issue for schools in Birmingham (and Alabama as a whole): the struggle to maintain the status quo in a political environment where the financial future of public education is increasingly uncertain.
By a Thousand Cuts
The fragility of public school funding has been cast into the spotlight on a national level in recent months, with the appointment of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos — an outspoken proponent of private and religious schools — and with reports that the Trump administration is considering a federal tax credit scholarship program that critics say will funnel federal tax dollars away from struggling public schools.
But public education didn’t suddenly begin hemorrhaging money when the president took office in January. Alabamians have watched the state’s public education budget undergo repeated cuts for years. A study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities showed that Alabama had cut 21.4 percent of its total K-12 funding between 2008 and 2014, second only to Arizona’s 23.3 percent.
Then, in 2015, faced with a $200 million budget shortfall, the state legislature voted to shift $80 million annually in use tax revenue from the Education Trust Fund — the state’s largest operational fund, which supports K-12 education, public libraries, and state universities, among other things — to the state’s general fund.
The following year, Governor Robert Bentley proposed going even further — this time, suggesting $181 million from the ETF be reappropriated to the state’s general fund. Bentley’s plan ran into bipartisan resistance and didn’t go forward.
Later that year, Bentley infamously stated that Alabama’s education system “sucks.” A study published two months later by Education Week gave Alabama schools a letter grade of D-plus, the seventh-worst in the country. When graded for spending, Alabama received an F.
Some education leaders responded to Bentley’s comment by pointing to budget cuts. “It’s been very challenging for school districts to meet the high demands that are expected from public education without the proper supports,” Jefferson County Superintendent Craig Pouncey told AL.com in November.
The state education budget has seen an uptick in recent years; last year, the state legislature approved a $6.3 billion education trust fund budget for the 2017 fiscal year, up from the previous year’s $6 billion — the highest it’s been since 2008. At the beginning of this year’s legislative session, the senate’s president pro tempore, Del Marsh, issued a call for a “comprehensive education plan going forward.”
“The education community, starting from the classroom teacher, needs to be involved with this, all the way through K-12, postsecondary, higher ed,” he said, according to AL.com. “…That encompasses all of our entities of education. Because unless you have that, how do we know where we’re spending our money is the best place to spend it?”
What Students Need
When asked where additional funding would most benefit Birmingham City Schools, Birmingham Board of Education President Wardine Alexander doesn’t hesitate with her answer: technology.
“In any industry, technology is always changing,” Alexander said. “So we want to make sure that we can provide the most available technology for our students — for example, Chromebooks [a laptop brand] or computers. [We need to] increase that technology, make it available to our students so they are prepared when they go into a global society. We know that, technologically, our students have to be prepared to compete.”
For J.W. Carpenter, the executive director of the Birmingham Education Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports Birmingham City Schools, one major issue that funding could help with is the need for wraparound services — that is, teams of people dedicated to individual students’ well-being. Another, he said, is the need for social workers in schools.
“I think there are a lot of kids who have needs that it’s incredibly challenging for a school and for a teacher to meet,” he said. “It’s very hard to find the funding available to provide for those services. That’s one of the things that I hear a lot from various educators and I personally see the need for.
“We know the legislature’s got a lot of choices, and we hope that education continues to be a priority,” Carpenter continued. “I’m always encouraged when I hear the legislature saying they want to reach out to different educators.”
“I Don’t Think Our Public Education Sucks”
Juliet Eastlick, a cancer researcher at UAB and the mother of an Avondale Elementary kindergartener, has seen firsthand the effects of low funding on public education. While she says many parents at her child’s school “are happy with the school system,” she’s also seen many parents take their children to private schools. The motivating factor behind those departures, she speculates, is the dysfunctional politics behind much of the school’s funding.
“Education has become politicized across the whole country and that’s been going on since the ‘80s, since Reagan,” Eastlick said. “Our school system is too politicized. … The origins of those politics, I don’t really know. It’s an ongoing problem.”
Current politicians, she said, haven’t made education enough of a priority. “I don’t think there is enough push or emphasis on education to indicate that it is a major platform of anyone running for office in Alabama,” Eastlick said. “Other than saying ‘public education sucks,’ which is asinine because I don’t think our public education sucks. I don’t think that our governor is really interested in supporting public education, at least from my interpretation. He and other legislators are only interested in privatizing education.”
Instead, she suggested, a “blue-ribbon commission” of various community experts might be the best way to address the funding problems and other issues facing public school systems. “[That’s] the first thing we need to do to improve public education in Alabama,” she said. “This was done in the ‘90s, and it was essentially a coming together of all community partners to discuss how to improve the schools.”
The Challenges Ahead
On Tuesday night, it was reported that the continuation of the tax benefitting public schools in Jefferson County had been approved by voters in a landslide. But even with that news, and even with the slow increase in funding coming from the state, public education’s financial future is still shaky. 2015 saw the passage of the Alabama School Choice and Student Opportunity Act, which allows for the creation of public charter schools and conversion charter schools in Alabama.
The impact that charter schools have on surrounding public schools is a topic of debate, though a 2015 report from the National Education Policy Center suggests that public school funding could suffer as a result. “There are plenty of documented instances of charter schools replacing neighborhood public schools and otherwise draining those schools of resources, thus causing closure,” the study read.
The key to facing these challenges, Alexander said, doesn’t come from funding, but from community partners who work with the school system, like the Carpenter-led Birmingham Education Foundation.
“We do have a strong community partner base,” Alexander said. “I think we’ve been very fortunate. We have various organizations that assist us in providing different opportunities for our students as far as our reading programs, assistance with financial aid, after school programs, people coming in and volunteering. It would be very [bad] for the district if we did not have the community partners.”
With additional reporting by Cody Owens.