Record budget, teacher salary boost and new literacy test
(Ala.) Before the 2019 session closed last week, lawmakers approved a record $7.1 billion education budget, a 4 percent pay raise for teachers and a new make-or-break reading test for third graders.
Although the spending plan is the most ever given to K-12 schools, once inflation adjustments are applied, it actually falls short of allocations the Legislature made in 2007 and 2008.
“The recovery has been slow and steady, which is not all bad,” said Rep. Bill Poole, R-Tuscaloosa, chair of the House Budget Committee, told reporters.
“We would have liked it to be a little hotter pace,” he said. “And we have needs on the K-12 sides of the equation. We’re not where we need to be. But we’re heading in the right direction.”
Last year, Alabama spent just over $10,000 per-pupil—which ranked ahead of neighboring states like Mississippi, Georgia, Florida and Tennessee—but that total is still among the lowest 25 percent nationally.
Teachers in Alabama are also among the lowest-paid nationally with an average salary of just over $50,000, which is well below the national average of $61,730.
The 4 percent increase approved by the Legislature without dissent last week would bring the starting pay for a teacher with a bachelor’s degree to $40,873.
Perhaps the most important piece of K-12 legislation approved by lawmakers this session is a mandate on all third graders to be proficient readers before being allowed to advance. The Alabama Literacy Act, which won passage by large bipartisan majorities, requires that teachers receive more training in the science of reading and requires schools to provide more help to struggling readers.
“Reading proficiency matters,” said State Superintendent of Schools Eric Mackey, in a statement. “The literacy bill seeks to improve the reading proficiency of Alabama’s students, including those with dyslexia, and I share in this goal.”
State officials estimate that about 25 percent of Alabama’s third graders tested below proficiency standards last year and would have been held back had the bill already been signed into law.
As proposed, the mandate will begin applying to students entering the first grade in 2020. With improved training and intervention strategies, school officials hope they can identify early learners with reading problems well before the third grade.
Schools will be required to provide summer reading camps that will offer at least 70 hours of instruction. The camps will be available to students as early as kindergarten.
Individualized reading plans would also be mandated with goals and updates being monitored by a team that must include teachers, administrators and a reading specialist, as well as a child’s parents or guardian.