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State Senate approves record $7.6 billion education budget with teacher raises, incentives

MONTGOMERY — The Alabama Senate on Thursday unanimously approved a record-setting $7.6 billion education budget for 2022.

The proposal includes a 2% across-the-board cost-of-living pay increase for K-12 and community college employees and two other more targeted pay increases for teachers. The bill now goes to the House of Representatives.

The Senate also approved Senate Bill 327 to create a program to offer increased pay to middle and high school math and science teachers who meet certain qualifications. Additional money would also be available to those teachers who work in hard-to-staff schools.

“The reality is that we have certain areas of education where we have serious shortages,” Senate President Pro Tem Greg Reed, R-Jasper, said Thursday.

Bill sponsor Donnie Chesteen, R-Geneva, said his proposed program would mean $15,000 more per year for participating teachers, depending on where they live. The bill requires that participating educators give up the option of tenure that would otherwise be available to them.

“Tenure is important, I don’t want to discount tenure,” Chesteen, a former educator, said. “ … But good teachers, I don’t think they think about tenure. They’re going to do their jobs.”

The pay increases for math and science teachers will cost an estimated $100 million per year.

“We’re putting our money where our mouths are,” said Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, chairman of the Senate education budget committee.

Separately, there are increases in the periodic step raises classroom teachers receive, making the minimum increases at least 2%. That will cost about $30 million.

“There’s over $200 million in compensation heading to educators across the state, so that’s a good thing,” Orr said on the Senate floor.

New in this budget is a $95 million “Teacher Stabilization Program” to help K-12 systems keep teachers next year even if they lost student enrollment this year because of COVID-19. School leaders have said they were concerned that their 2022 funding would be hurt because of a drop in enrollment this year. Systems are funded on prior year attendance numbers.

Orr said school leaders expect many of the students missing this year to return next year.

“If we didn’t fund these units, some systems would be in hot water,” he said on the Senate floor.

There’s also a new $3 million line item for a capital equipment grant program for K-12 schools. Orr said that would help systems with occasional unexpected costs.

The budget represents an about $41 million, or 10%, increase for the community college system. Orr on the Senate floor said he tried to smooth out some of the funding discrepancies among the colleges, noting that while Calhoun Community College and Jefferson State were the largest in the state, they haven’t been the highest funded.

In all, the budget includes about $5.3 billion for K-12 and nearly $2 billion for higher education.

The budget is $455 million more than the current year’s spending plan.

Separate from the state’s budget is the federal COVID-19 relief money. Between the three rounds of funding, Alabama education institutions’ allocations total more than $4 billion.

Orr said for K-12, some of that money will be used instead of state money to fund summer programs this year.

“I think the education community, the K-12 world, is going to be extremely busy this summer and the federal dollars are going to pay for a lot of that,” Orr said. “But quite frankly, children need to catch up because the virtual learning has not been as good as the traditional model.”

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