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An Alabama Senate committee approved an education budget Wednesday that reduces funding for public schools and universities, cuts teaching jobs and enlarges class sizes for the 2012-2013 school year.
The budget, approved unanimously by the Senate Finance and Taxation-Education Committee, is a redesigned version of the budget that Gov. Robert Bentley recommended to the Legislature in February. It was the Legislature's first action on the budget.
"It's lean, but we're maintaining the critical and essential parts of education in this state," the committee chairman, Republican Sen. Trip Pittman of Daphne said.
The committee's budget discussion was different from past years because no one talked about wasteful spending or making schools more efficient.
"When you look at the budget, you realize how well managed Alabama is," Pittman told the committee.
The $5.5 billion budget is about $150 million, or 2.7 percent, smaller than this year budget.
State fiscal experts anticipate the state revenue available for the next school year will be about the same as this year, but next year's budget will have to be smaller because of a law the Legislature passed last year. The "rolling reserve" law keeps the Legislature from spending all available money in order to build a reserve.
The committee's budget spends more on K-12 schools than the Republican governor recommended and less on two-year college and universities than he proposed. With the changes, K-12 schools would get 1.6 percent less than this year, two-year colleges 5.1 percent less, and universities 4.8 percent less than this year.
Pittman said the committee favored K-12 schools over higher education because colleges can raise tuition. Gordon Stone, executive director of the Alabama Higher Education Partnerships, said the cuts will make it harder for colleges to offer affordable educations.
Bentley had recommended raising class size by one-half student per class because of budget cuts. That would eliminate more than 1,000 of the state's 45,000 teaching positions. The committee reduced that to four-tenths of a student per class, which would eliminate about 800 teaching jobs. Pittman said he was hopeful that could be done through attrition.
Teacher lobbyist Henry Mabry called the committee's budget "much improved over the governor's irresponsible budget," but he said he hopes to see more changes as the budget moves to the Senate and then to the House.
The budget follows the governor's recommendation in maintaining spending at current levels for the Alabama Reading Initiative and distance learning programs in public schools and raises funding for the Alabama Math, Science and Technology Initiative by 7.7 percent. All three are programs that education officials credit with raising student performance.
Bentley had proposed spending $158 million from the education budget to help the state Medicaid program, which is traditionally financed from the state General Fund budget for state agencies. The committee deleted that. Pittman said the school budget is not the place for the health care program that serves more than 900,000 Alabamians.
While the budget reduces spending on most functions of education for next year, it would give a $2.2 million, or 26 percent, increase to education programs for prisoners. Pittman said the governor recommended that and the committee agreed because the state is strapped for money to operate prisons.
The governor's press secretary, Jennifer Ardis, said he was reviewing the changes.
Pittman said he expects to ask the Senate to consider the budget within a couple of weeks.
The state's other budget, the General Fund budget, has passed the House and is pending in a Senate committee. The chairman of the Senate Finance and Taxation-General Fund Committee, Republican Arthur Orr of Decatur, said Wednesday he is not sure when his committee will take up the budget.