The Alabama State Capitol building on Feb. 4, 2020, in Montgomery, Ala.
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Alabama lawmakers have a lot on their plates this year. Beyond determining how to divvy up record-breaking state revenue, there are a few long-standing issues they plan to address, including what to do about teacher shortages, how to deal with unfinished learning due to the pandemic and how to improve test scores.
The Ed Lab team also will be watching a set of controversial bills aimed at COVID-19 policies and restricting lessons on gender, race and history.
And with 2022 being an election year – all 140 legislative seats, along with statewide offices, are on the ballot – we could see actions that aim to shore up prospective votes.
Here are the top six education priorities we’ll be watching this year.
Record-breaking state revenue, gobs of federal dollars
Lawmakers expect to distribute $8.3 billion for education this year, breaking last year’s $7.7 billion record education budget. Gov. Kay Ivey laid out her priorities for education in Tuesday’s State of the State address, which includes raising teacher pay by 4% – at a cost of $180 million, per state finance officials – and creating more incentives for math and science teachers.
Finance Director Bill Poole told reporters Wednesday the raise is sustainable based on historical growth in revenue.
“Right now,” Poole said, “a number of surveys have come out recently showing that large percentages [of teachers] are considering retirement in the near future. So we need to make sure that we’re prioritizing educators as it relates to being successful. Compensation is part of that.”
Alabama’s K-12 schools received $3.3 billion in federal COVID relief funding to spend over the next three years, but lawmakers do not have a say in how that is spent.
Poole said lawmakers are taking into consideration the federal COVID relief funding that has been sent to schools as they make choices about what to use state money for, but added he realizes federal funding will end and the state may be asked to fill gaps.
Finance officials stressed Tuesday that districts should spend federal relief money on non-recurring expenses to avoid sustainability problems after the money runs out. “We are hopeful that local education leaders are not spending these funds on recurring obligations,” Poole said.
There is a lot of interest in expanding and shoring up broadband access across the state, and Poole said the state is looking to federal American Rescue Plan Act funds to help with that expansion.
Addressing teacher shortages
Alabama school staff are increasingly leaving – or planning to leave – the profession, and school officials are scrambling to fill vacancies. In search of a fix, state leaders have launched several incentives aimed at addressing shortages in rural areas, as well as in math and science, in recent years.
So far, 1,623 science and math teachers have enrolled in the state’s TEAMS incentive – but a lot of them were already in the classroom, said Eric Mackey, the Alabama state superintendent. Ivey’s budget proposal expands funding from $50 million to $100 million, but that just means the money will be available if needed, Poole said Wednesday.
Ivey’s proposed 4% raise for school staff will bring starting salaries to $43,357 for teachers. Poole told reporters that Ivey’s proposal aims to adjust upward some of the mid-career salary amounts, too.
“We know that we lose some competitiveness, as it relates to the salary formulas in that middle career phase,” he said, “so we’re attempting to continue to improve our competitiveness in that area, as has been done in recent years.”
And at the state department, Mackey said officials are rolling out about 10 changes to teacher certification – a change that advocates say could increase teacher diversity and help mitigate shortages in areas that struggle the most. The department said this fall that it had no centralized plan to increase diversity in the teaching workforce, despite earlier recommendations from legislators and education leaders.
The last time Alabama made substantive changes to the teacher certification process was in 2019, when legislators voted to expand the time length of emergency certificates.
Reading and math supports, demands
Alabama is dead-last in the nation in math scores and near-last in reading. As pandemic disruptions continue to widen gaps in student learning, funding algebra and early-grade literacy supports will be critical, state leaders say.
“We have to raise our expectations, and we have to help our teachers by coaching them up,” Mackey told legislators Tuesday.
The state recently switched its reading and math assessments to more closely align with the national NAEP exam. And so far, more than 8,000 teachers have completed intensive math training and about 15,000 have enrolled in LETRS training, a program that aligns with the science of reading and new state literacy requirements.
Mackey said he aims to place math coaches in every school in 2022, provide more parent resources and fund more after-school and remediation supports, such as high-dosage tutoring.
Safe and supportive learning environments
A top priority for the upcoming fiscal year will continue to be creating a safe and supportive learning environment in K-12 schools with education officials asking for increase of $61.5 million for school nurses and mental health service coordinators – a position created in 2020 to help address gaps in the diagnosis and mental health treatment of children in schools.
The funding will help get a nurse in every school and a mental health coordinator in at least every district –- two needs that have been exacerbated by COVID-19. Throughout the pandemic, school nurses have been used to contact trace, test and monitor the spread of the virus in classrooms, with some nurses having to rotate between multiple schools.
The governor’s budget recommendation falls far short of that request, proposing a $8.9 million increase for school nurses. The state is providing $40.7 million for school nurses for the current school year.
Meanwhile, mental health coordinators have helped care for students at a time when the American Academy of Pediatrics declared a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health, reporting “soaring rates of mental health challenges…tied to the stress brought on by COVID-19.” According to psychiatrists at Children’s of Alabama, that crisis is being mirrored in the state as well.
Mackey said during the budget proposal that the work of mental health coordinators is “going well but we’ve got to continue to push that out.”
Currently, there are 114 mental health coordinators in the state and 1,538 school nurses, but it is not clear how many more positions the funding would provide for.
School choice expansion?
During last year’s session, there wasn’t much appetite for education reform. A bill to allow open enrollment among all districts, brought by Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, never made it to the Senate floor for a vote. And Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, couldn’t get traction on her bill to ensure local funding follows students to public charter schools.
Marsh told AL.com Wednesday he is gauging interest among lawmakers for a final push for education reform measures, but didn’t share any details of his proposal.
But with parents up in arms about decisions local boards of education are making around in-person versus remote school, there may be more interest in school choice options – beyond the school a child is zoned to attend – this year.
Alabama has limited school choice options beyond homeschooling and private school. There are eight public charter schools enrolling just under 3,000 students statewide this year. And the tax credit scholarship program took a big hit last year, supporting 3,000 low-income students’ tuition for private schools, down from 4,000 in the 2019-20 school year.
In her State of the State address Tuesday, Ivey mentioned a new program aimed at supporting elementary schools identified as “failing.”
Poole said that Ivey is requesting $10 million for the state department of education to provide grants to elementary schools identified using the A-F school report card to address specific needs for those schools.
On the most recent report cards–released in 2019, using measures from the 2018-19 school year, eight schools with elementary grades received an “F,” and 69 schools with elementary grades received a “D.”
It will not be a one-size-fits-all approach, he said, because schools have different struggles and weaknesses. Rather, Poole said, the state department of education should work with local officials to determine how best to improve student learning at the school.
“Diagnose the issue to the extent we have an elementary, early grade school that’s not performing as we want it to.” Poole said. “What is the issue? Target that. Prepare a plan to address it. Share that plan with local leadership, local legislative leaders, share it with the Governor’s office.” And then implement it.
The objective, he said, is to get the school off of the failing list.
Updated 5:10 p.m. to correctly identify a program aimed at supporting “failing” elementary schools.
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The Rise of Online Businesses: A Comprehensive Guide to Success
In a world increasingly connected through the internet, the possibilities for starting and growing online businesses have expanded exponentially. Whether you’re looking to escape the traditional nine-to-five grind, want to tap into a global market, or are simply passionate about a niche interest, launching an online business is a promising venture. In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explore the key steps to success in the dynamic world of online entrepreneurship.
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In conclusion, the world of online businesses offers endless possibilities for aspiring entrepreneurs. By following these essential steps, you can increase your chances of creating a successful online venture. Remember that persistence, adaptability, and a commitment to providing value to your audience are fundamental qualities of a thriving online business owner.
The internet has revolutionized the way we do business. If you have a unique idea, a passion, or a solution to a problem, there’s never been a better time to start your online business. So, why wait? Take the plunge and embark on your journey to online business success today.