Alabama state superintendent warns about upcoming costs, loss of federal money

By: - February 24, 2023 7:01 am
Alabama State Schools Superintendent Eric Mackey sits behind a desk with a microphone attached.

Alabama State Schools Superintendent Eric Mackey listens during the Alabama State Board of Education’s regular meeting on February 9, 2023 in Montgomery, Alabama. (Brian Lyman/Alabama Reflector)

Alabama’s ambitions for high-quality education could be restrained by staffing shortages and a looming loss of federal relief funds, the state schools’ chief told legislators on Thursday.

State Superintendent Eric Mackey Thursday said the department was working toward goals outlined in a nearly three-year old strategic plan, but added that the state continued to struggle to attract teachers, especially in rural areas. 

Mackey gave the lawmakers outlines of the goals for education in Alabama and referred to the “Strategic Plan” of “academic growth and achievement;” “college, career, and workforce ready;” “safe & supportive learning environment;” “highly effective educators” and “customer friendly services.” This plan was unveiled the day the coronavirus epidemic shut down schools in March 2020.

“We had the dubious distinction of rolling it out on March the 12th, 2020, the day before we closed the schools for the rest of the year,” he said. “So, nobody paid any attention to it.”

To help schools recover from the COVID pandemic, the federal government passed the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund. The federal government distributed the ESSER funds in three separate rounds, providing over $3 billion to Alabama. ESSER funds can be used to educate students and alleviate the effects of the pandemic.

The final round of funds, known as the American Rescue Plan ESSER, or ESSER III, must be budgeted by September 2024 or the funds will expire. According to the Alabama State Department of Education, only around 37% of Alabama’s total ESSER funds have been spent.

Mackey said that there are districts that have only spent around 25% of their funds.

“They still have 18 months,” Markey said. “But that means in the next 18 months, they have to spend 75% of their money.”

Some of the slow spending has been the result of supply chain problems, Mackey said. The United States Department of Education has also encouraged districts to spend ESSER funds on personnel, but many rural districts have struggled to attract teachers.

“Some of our very rural communities can’t find more people to hire,” he said. “In other words, they’re even having a hard time finding teacher assistants, not just certified teachers.”

Federal money has been spent on summer reading camps created by the 2019 Alabama Literacy Act. Under the law, third-graders who do not read at grade level by the end of the year are held back, with some exceptions.  The state has operated summer reading camps with this goal in mind. According to Mackey’s presentation, at least 6,389 kindergarteners; 8,713 first graders, 8,471 second graders and 8,243 third graders have been served by these camps. The state spent $18 million on the camp in 2022.  

Summer reading camps funded with federal money are scheduled to operate this year and in 2024.

The Numeracy Act, passed last year, aims to improve math instruction in Alabama schools. The state will open summer math camps this year, paid for through state funds.

Mackey said that they can fund the camps through the next two years. But in 2025, the camps will need to be funded by the state because the ESSER funds will be gone. State legislators will need to find $48 million for the math and reading camps that year. 

“That’s why we’re always trying to focus on what’s coming down the road,” he said.


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Jemma Stephenson
Jemma Stephenson

Jemma Stephenson covers education as a reporter for the Alabama Reflector. She previously worked at the Montgomery Advertiser and graduated from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.