I want to propose a new name for Alabama’s education system–one that more accurately portrays the true status of public education in our state. I propose we call our public schools “the Lazarus system.”
Lazarus, you will recall, was a poor disabled beggar. He was so helpless that someone had to carry him to his daily begging site. When Jesus introduces us to Lazarus, he is begging outside the home of a rich man. For some reason, however, the rich man refuses to help Lazarus. In fact, the rich guy is so callous and selfish that he won’t even give Lazarus the crumbs that fall from his table.
Alabama boasts at having one of the lowest tax rates in the country. Of course a low tax rate means that people are able to keep more of their money. But it also means that our education system is tragically under funded ”sort of like Lazarus.
There are three pieces to Alabama’s education funding: sales tax, income tax, and property tax. Almost all of Alabama’s income tax is earmarked for teacher’s salaries. That means that everything else needed for education has to be paid for out of property and sales tax.
Alabama’s education budget has been forced into proration 14 times in the last 51 years. One of the reasons this happens is the over dependence on sales tax. Any time there is a down turn in the economy, like the one we are in now, school funding drops because sales revenue drops. Imagine trying to run your household budget not knowing from one year to the next how much money you would have to work with. That’s what it’s like for the Lazarus system in Alabama.
A more stable and predictable source of revenue for education is property tax. Unfortunately, property tax rates are so low, especially on timber land, that the revenues generated are wholly inadequate. A recent study of Alabama’s property tax rates indicates that while 70 percent of the land in our state is held in timber, the revenue from those lands only contributes 2 percent of the state’s total property tax revenue.
And so our public education system, like a crippled beggar, is carried on the backs of working people and the poor to a place where it can sit everyday and beg for the resources needed to educate our children. The powers that be in our state are so stingy that they are willing to starve public education while providing feasts for their own private interests. Education does get a few crumbs, but not nearly enough to do an adequate job educating our children.
In Jesus’ parable Lazarus and the rich man both die. Lazarus goes to heaven while the rich man goes to a place not nearly as nice. I guess there is some comfort to be gained in knowing that eventually God will make things right. But don’t you know that God would have been pleased if the rich man had taken some his great resources and made some of Lazarus’ days on earth a little brighter.
Our failure to adequately fund public education in our state ensures that thousands of children will enter adulthood ill prepared to take advantage of the new jobs in manufacturing and technology. Some of these children, because we failed to provide sufficient resources to educate them, will become the poor of the next generation.
Waiting and hoping for crumbs to fall.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.