Alaska Senate bill would add $1,000 to the per-student school funding formula

AKLeg33, Alaska Legislature, Juneau

The Senate Education Committee introduced legislation on Wednesday that would increase Alaska’s funding formula by $1,000 per student in response to what Senate President Gary Stevens called a crisis in education spending.

That amount would represent a nearly 17% increase over the current funding formula of $5,960 per student for the fiscal year beginning in July. That would result in more than $257 million in annual government spending, according to an analysis by the bipartisan Legislative Finance Division.

Education advocates who support the increase say there is a need to address years of stagnant education spending that has not kept pace with inflation, leaving districts struggling to keep up with rising costs. Conservative lawmakers and right-wing advocacy groups have been more skeptical about the prospect of increasing funding that would improve Alaska’s lagging student outcomes.

The Senate bill was introduced after the Board of Education heard educators, administrators and parents discuss the challenges they face as a result of more than a decade of little or no increase in public school funding. The Base Student Allocation (BSA) remained flat at $5,930 between 2017 and 2022. Even before that, increases in the funding formula did not match increases in the Alaska Consumer Price Index. The amount per student remained at $5,680 between 2011 and 2014.

“We got that number because we want to take a bold approach,” Sen. Loki Tobin, D-Anchorage, chair of the Education Committee, said in a news conference on Wednesday. In the weeks leading up to the bill’s release, education advocates had been calling for as much as an $860 increase in the formula, which would only account for inflation between 2017 and 2022.

AKLeg33, Alaska Legislature, Juneau, Loki Tobin, Loki Tobin, Legislature

“We didn’t just want to help stop the bleeding. We actually wanted to put resources into our schools,” Tobin said.

How the state will pay for the funding increase, Sitka Republican Senator Bert Stedman, co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee, formulated as a question that will boil down to how much the Permanent Fund will pay out.

Bert Stedman, Juneau, Legislature

Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s budget proposal called for a full statutory dividend of nearly $4,000 at a cost of $2.5 billion and no increase in school funding. Stedman said that by reducing the dividend to $1,300, the state could cover the education budget increase, any municipal bond debt and the projected $300 million budget gap that was part of Dunleavy’s plan.

“That’s the magnitude of what we have to give and take when deciding what to actually fund,” Stedman said.

Dunleavy spokesman Jeff Turner said in an email on Wednesday that Dunleavy “recognizes that increasing funding for education this year is appropriate.” But he didn’t specify a funding increase that the governor might support.

“He looks forward to meaningful discussions with lawmakers at this session on increasing school funding through accountability measures that show increased funding leads to better student outcomes,” Turner wrote.

Tobin called education funding “a top priority” of the bipartisan Senate majority. “It’s a variety of pieces. It’s not just the base student allocation. It’s also about retirement and healthcare and student transportation,” she said. But the approach, which she described as “bold,” wasn’t as much as some are now calling for.

A memo from the Legislative Finance Division released earlier this week showed that according to some metrics, accounting for inflation over the past decade would add more than $1,200 to the formula. Tobin said other forms of funding, such as increasing the student transportation formula, which hasn’t changed in recent years, could offset some of the costs that districts currently have to meet using base student allocation.

At a Senate Education Committee hearing on Wednesday, Alexei Painter, director of the Legislative Finance Division, said once the one-time funding is accounted for, the BSA would need to be increased by $1,348 to reflect 2015 spending and the impact of rising prices.

“This is the beginning of the beginning,” Senate President Gary Stevens said of the Senate bill. “It’s a very long way. It’s a start.”

In the House of Representatives, the school funding crisis has received less attention from the overwhelmingly Republican majority. When the majority members of the House of Representatives discussed the matter, they indicated that they would support setting increases in funding to improve student performance. Alaskan students regularly rank near the bottom of the nation when it comes to reading and math tests.

“Any BSA increase that we will discuss in the House of Representatives will be discussed along with measures to address accountability and linking it to potential targeted types of funding,” said Rep. Justin Ruffridge, a Republican from Soldotna who co-chairs the House Education Committee House of Representatives, which has not yet met this year. But he added that “nothing in the house is a non-starter.”

Cathy Tilton, Juneau, Justin Ruffridge, Zack Fields, Legislature

“The caucus doesn’t have — we haven’t set specific numbers,” said Ruffridge, who previously said he would support a starting point for an education increase anywhere from $250 to $750. “Where we start on the house side is still going to be a topic of debate and I couldn’t comment on what that number would look like.”

While the vast majority of those who testified before the Senate Education Committee have asked for more funding, some have asked for a different approach. “We need a paradigm shift,” said David Boyle, former executive director of the Alaska Policy Forum, a conservative advocacy group that supports the use of public funds for private schools. Boyle argued that more accountability for district-level spending was needed.

“The bottom line is that the legislature can increase K-12 funding, but will that increase student achievement?” Boyle asked. “That’s what we should all focus on.”

Witnesses from across Alaska said the results of the lump sum funding had been far-reaching and had affected rural and urban counties differently. In districts, they have led to talks about school closures, class increases and staff reductions. In rural Alaska, the lack of funding has exacerbated challenges in keeping up with building maintenance and attracting educators to remote regions.

Dillingham City School District Superintendent Amy Brower described being forced to sleep in a school building for five weeks after being hired for the job in July, with no access to hot water because she was unable to find housing in the community. Nine other teachers had to do the same, she told the Senate Education Committee in a hearing Monday, and it’s one of the factors causing educators to leave rural Alaska “in droves.”

“Living in a classroom, sleeping on an air mattress, and having nowhere to relax impairs the ability of teachers and administrators to provide quality education to students,” Brower said.

High turnover among teachers has prompted the district to hire educators with emergency certifications, Brower said, meaning teachers have not met all of the requirements normally required for certification.

“I’m surprised the state hasn’t been sued because we don’t have enough resources to meet the needs of students in our special needs programs,” Jessica Cobely, a Juneau math and science teacher, said Monday before the Senate Education Committee. “I think those are the things that lie in your future if we don’t find a solution now.”

Nathan Erfurth, president of the Kenai Peninsula Education Association, said the district is already falling short of its potential due to stagnant funding.

“For those out there arguing that we should see better test scores before we invest more in education — was the last time your car hit a hill that you accelerated to get over it? Or did you bitterly refuse to give him more until he went faster up the hill on his own? Let’s go over the hill,” said Erfurth.

The Senate’s new school funding bill is due to be heard in committee for the first time next week.

Sean Maguire reported from Juneau and Iris Samuels reported from Anchorage.

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