Public schools are the cornerstone of a community and critical to a democratic society. And yet, across the country and right here in Alabama, public education is under attack.
We’ve already mentioned efforts like the divisive concepts bill, which directly targets educators and their ability to teach truthfully while also pushing offensive, ridiculous narratives about what’s happening inside public school classrooms.
As you heard in the Arise update, there are multiple voucher style privatization bills advancing in the legislature. More on that in a moment.
Fair Pay for ESPs
There’s a renewed push for improving pay for education support professionals or ESPs. These are the support staff who help our school systems function, from the custodians and cafeteria workers to bus drivers and special education aides. Unlike certified educators like teachers, counselors and librarians, or like school nurses, there is no state salary matrix for support staff. There’s no state minimum salary. There’s no guaranteed step raises or a step raise policy. There’s no roadblocks to outsourcing or privatization. We’ve seen how Huntsville City Schools has been a pioneer in this sort of privatization, outsourcing hundreds of support staff jobs to temp staffing agencies like Spur. Hiring and retention is a major problem, especially if and when folks can find better pay at McDonald’s. Many support staff are doing it for the benefits, like PEEHIP healthcare and the state pension, which of course outsourced employees don’t have. They work for the schools to have benefits and then work 2nd and 3rd jobs to be able to make ends meet.
The Alabama Education Association is making a push for a state minimum of $15 per hour. This was found to be highly offensive by right wing rag 1819 News, but I’ll wait until Jacob is back on the show next week before we put them on blast. Don't want him to miss out on that!
Tax Cuts and the ETF Budget
So the Education Trust Fund budget has a record amount of revenue this year, and everyone wants a piece of the pie. There’s been all sorts of pork projects proposed; Governor Kay Ivey even wanted to fund a water park with education dollars. And then, as head of the Retirement Systems of Alabama David Bronner put it, there’s “killing the future with tax cuts”. Last year, The 2022 legislative session passed 18 tax cuts, costing the ETF budget $160 million per year or $1.6 billion over the next 10 years! The 2023 legislature has introduced more than 20 additional tax cuts, none of which have revenue to replace them. The House UNANIMOUSLY passed HB115 and 116, costing the Education Trust Fund $82 million per year, that’s $820 million over the next 10 years. The cut to the state income tax on overtime, Anthony Daniels’s bill that we’ve discussed previously, would be $40 million per year. Elimination of the grocery tax would result in a $600 million blow to the education budget. Alabama has the second lowest tax revenue per capita, the lowest if you include the lottery. And I agree with Dr. Bronner that this makes for a financial disaster in a matter of years.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m all for ending regressive taxes that disproportionately hurt working folks. Alabama’s tax system is both highly inadequate to fund essential services while also highly regressive, with too much of the burden born by the poor and working class. We’re all for a removal of the grocery sales tax. And I’m not going to turn down a tax cut on overtime pay. But without replacement revenue, there are consequences. We have to reject this devil’s choice, that the only way to get modest tax relief for some workers is to promise austerity for others. Relieving the tax burden on the poorest among us shouldn’t mean cuts to our public schools.
The Alabama legislators are presenting us with a false dichotomy. There are numerous ways they could raise more than enough revenue to pay for these tax cuts while protecting funding for education and other essential services. For one, they could tax the wealthy elites! Tax the ruling class, you know, the folks who can most afford it. Alabama legislators could close tax loopholes that benefit the richest among us. They could end the federal income tax deduction. We could look at the so called “timber” land that is taxed at far lower rates than the land your home sits on and at lower rates than timber land in neighboring states! There’s a lot of needed reform to our backwards tax system. But even if they couldn’t muster that political will, even if they are too cowardly to dare risk offending the oligarchs, they could still generate billions in additional revenue without tax reform. Alabama legislators could legalize gambling, like casinos and sports betting. Alabama could legalize recreational marijuana, and Lord knows the first state in the South to do it will be booming. Alabama could do what folks have been asking for since before I was born which is establish a lottery like all of our neighboring states.
Maybe you say there’s drawbacks to these policies, and that’s fine for us to discuss. But let’s not pretend like the Legislature doesn’t have plenty of options on the table. We don’t have to accept the exchange between a promise of modest tax relief for a promise of education austerity.
Privatization and Vouchers
And on the subject of gutting the education trust fund, there’s a push for an expansion to private school scholarships under the Alabama Accountability Act. They want to lift the cap by another $20 million, that’s $20 million more in private school scholarships, that much more public money into private pockets, that much more in tax write offs for the donors.
Even worse is the PRICE Act, sponsored by the state senator from my district, Republican Larry Stutts. By the way, Google “Larry Stutts” lawsuit for some interesting background there. The PRICE Act would be a full scale voucher. As heard in the May 10 education policy committee testimony from my former APSO sister Allison King, who’s with the Alabama Education Association, the bill is ripe for fraud.
Proponents of school vouchers claim the tax dollars should follow the child. Nowhere else do we take this approach or follow this logic. My tax dollars for roads don't follow my car. When I disagree with the local police force, I don't get a home security savings account as an alternative choice. Nobody asks how I feel when my tax dollars fund wars all over the globe and I wasn't given the choice to opt out.
This push for "school choice" is about putting public money into private pockets while pushing reactionary, segregationist ideology, backed by a coalition of capitalist vultures and bigots & religious extremists of various stripes. Most of it financed by a handful of billionaires. And the results of these experiments are unsurprisingly harmful for students, educators, families, & communities.
Call me radical but what if we ensured every child an excellent, free, appropriate public education instead? Maybe we could try that after decades of sabotage through corporate reform and privatization.
The profiteers offer "choice" in the marketplace as a replacement for rights in the community. They don't want an education system with guaranteed rights, they want an education marketplace with consumer options, which like all consumer "options" depends on the numbers in your bank account and the amount green paper in your wallet. And when they say school choice, they really mean the school can choose its students.
Educating children is not the same as producing widgets. And given how inequitable and dysfunctional privatized healthcare is for example, why would we believe this will work better for the many and not just a few? It won't of course but that's the thing -- these folks don't actually believe in a society or a public or a community, only individuals and their money.
Educators, parents, students, and communities must unite to defend the teaching profession, the resources our schools rely on, and ultimately the very concept of public education!
- For the full discussion from the May 20, 2023 episode of The Valley Labor Report, check out part one and part two of our education legislative update. While you’re there, check out our public education playlist for more interviews and segments on this important issue.