Last week, the Alabama Senate passed its $8.8 billion Education Trust Fund (ETF) budget for the upcoming fiscal year. While many of the headlines were focused on another bill — the $2.8 billion in supplemental funding expected to be spent this year — a $15 million line item in the ETF budget warrants further discussion. It was not part of Gov. Kay Ivey’s proposed budget.

The text of the bill says the $15 million appropriation would go towards a “support staff salary stipend.” No other explanation is provided.

However, the same morning the bill was considered by the Senate Finance and Taxation Education committee, the Alabama Education Association (AEA) organized an event at the State House where around 300 school support staff workers rallied in support of higher wages. Reportedly the AEA is working to create a minimum salary schedule for support personnel, setting wages of at least $15 per hour. Several other states, including Illinois, Maine, and Minnesota, have attempted similar, and thus far unsuccessful, support staff raises.

Education budget committee chairman Arthur Orr (R-Decatur) said the $15 million appropriation is a “guesstimate” because there is currently no statewide minimum salary scale for support staff.

I’m not questioning the value of educational support personnel. Schools depend on those employees — including bus drivers, janitors, cafeteria workers, secretaries, and administrative assistants — to provide any number of essential services.

But the fact is, Alabama’s current minimum wage for private sector employees is $7.25 per hour. At the least, it sparks a question of whether public unionized employees should have their minimum salary nearly double that of Alabama’s private and generally non-unionized workforce.

What’s also unclear is the number of K-12 education support personnel that are currently making less than $15 an hour. A separate bill, SB85, provides a 2% pay raise next year for K-12 teachers as well as support personnel. For the current school year support personnel received a 4% raise. The previous year, they received another 2% salary increase. There has been only one legislative session since 2018 — the COVID-19-shortened 2020 session — when K-12 staff did not receive a pay raise.

Few private sector hourly employees could say the same.

According to data from the National Education Association, the average annual salary for education support personnel in Alabama was $28,708 during the 2021-2022 school year. Alabama ranked 41st in the nation, ahead of Arkansas, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Mississippi in the Southeast. Keep in mind, that was before the latest 4% salary increase took effect. Florida ranked highest in the region at $31,286.

Taken at an hourly rate, Alabama’s average support staff salary comes out to approximately $13.80 per hour. However, that is assuming that all support employees work 40 hours per week, 52 weeks per year. Given the academic calendar, it is likely that few, if any, do. For example, the Shelby County school district scheduled 176 student days and 187 teacher days for the current school year.

That is not to say that all support personnel are making more than $15 per hour. That figure varies between districts depending on the position. But some clearly are.

I’m not advocating for a $15 minimum wage statewide. But I do wonder why the discussed proposal is for government employees — who are part of a powerful lobby — when too little is being done to support the private sector.

A better path forward is to pursue policies that will benefit all Alabamians regardless of who they work for. Lowering income tax rates, for example — of which there are currently several proposals in the legislature — would allow all Alabamians to keep more of what they earn and essentially receive a raise. Lower corporate income tax rates would give Alabama companies more flexibility to invest profits back into the employees they rely on.

It should not be left to Alabama’s state government to pick the winners and losers.

Justin Bogie serves as Fiscal and Budget Reporter for 1819 News. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to: [email protected].

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