JUNEAU -- The House Finance Committee is beginning to delve into one of the biggest unresolved issues of the legislative session this week: education funding.
The Senate has passed bills that would implement automatic funding increases over three years and that would tie additional education funding to oil prices. The governor also has proposed $30.3 million in one-time funding to help school districts with energy and student transportation costs.
There is a spate of other education-related bills, including one that would change student transportation funding.
At issue are education spending increases and ways to help districts better address increased costs of doing business.
Districts around the state have warned of budget shortfalls and expressed support for a multi-year increase to what's known as the base student allocation.
Committee co-chair Bill Thomas said a goal is to find out what condition school districts are truly in and to better understand where the impacts on them are coming from. The hearings do not revolve around a specific bill, and Haines Republican said he's not sure what the ultimate vehicle will be for advancing a proposal.
The Senate earlier this session passed a bill to increase the base student allocation, which would cost the state an estimated $30.6 million next fiscal year and $95.5 million each year beginning in 2015. Sen. Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, and co-chair of the Senate Education Committee, has said that this would help address cost of living increases.
But even that doesn't go as far as some education leaders would have liked.
Gov. Sean Parnell and some House Republicans are wary of automatic increases. They contend there needs to be a public discussion about how the money is being spent -- greater accountability.
House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, said automatic formula increases alone don't fix the problem.
When looking at the overall funding picture, there are other factors to consider, he said, like retirement and health care costs for school employees.
In a newsletter last month, Chenault said K-12 per- pupil funding has risen from $6,400 to $14,290 since 2004 if other factors are taken into consideration, such as account retirement, maintenance, construction, debt service, one-time funds, student transportation and the base student allocation.
State general fund spending has risen from $842 million in 2004 to $1.8 billion, he said. Factoring in all funds, including municipal, federal and state dollars, and spending went from $1.7 billion in fiscal year 2004 to about $2.9 billion.
Chenault, in a recent blog post, said the GOP-led House is concerned with education funding levels -- "make no mistake.
"We are looking at one-time issues like providing energy cost relief, health care cost offsets, transportation, and others," he wrote. "We're trying to put together a plan to address this. But we're also concerned with the education students are getting and looking at standards and theme-based education."
Rep. Les Gara, an Anchorage Democrat who is on the House Finance Committee, said the state "can't be dumb about education policy.
"Democrats have always taken this position: School funding has to keep up with inflation so you don't increase class sizes and decrease achievement," Gara said, adding that schools' achievement increased when funding hasn't lagged.
Gara said the state also should be making investments in areas like expanded or universal pre-kindergarten programs, which he said lead to improved student achievement.