Finance committee rewrites merit scholarship funding

Gov. Parnell does not support the bill, which change requirements.

Associated PressMarch 27, 2012 

JUNEAU -- The Alaska Legislature's Senate Finance Committee is considering a state operating budget that's virtually the same size as the bill that passed the House but also makes some marked changes.

Perhaps the biggest head-turner would change the terms of funding a pet program of Gov. Sean Parnell -- merit scholarships. It would tie funding for this year's graduating class to a bill that would establish a long-term funding source for the program.

Parnell does not support the bill, HB104, as rewritten by senators.

In an "action alert" issued late Tuesday afternoon, Parnell characterized the Senate's action as a cut and asked Alaskans to call lawmakers, letting them know it's not acceptable.

The committee plans to take public testimony on the $9.5 billion spending plan Wednesday. Amendments are expected later this week.

Last year, lawmakers approved $400 million as an endowment for the scholarship program, which was significant given that some lawmakers had expressed reluctance to set aside such a huge chunk of money, citing future fiscal uncertainty. Some lawmakers also had questioned whether Alaska students would have equal access to the classes needed to qualify for the scholarships.

Parnell's bill to establish a fund for the money, however, stalled in the Senate. Earlier this session, the Senate Finance Committee rewrote it, adding provisions that Parnell considered problematic, such as letting students who take a high school equivalency exam, or GED, qualify for scholarships and calling for the state education department to waive course requirements if that portion of the curriculum isn't available in a student's home district. The House, in its version of the operating budget approved earlier this month, approved the full $8 million that Parnell requested for his scholarship program.

The idea behind the GED provision was to be more inclusive and to provide a pathway for scholarships for students who don't receive a traditional diploma. Parnell spokeswoman Sharon Leighow has said the changes are "contrary to the intent of performance scholarships." She said the bill's intent was to create a fund for scholarships, not to change scholarship requirements.

Parnell sees scholarships as key to raising expectations for students and helping transform a public education system marred by lackluster graduation rates.

The Senate proposal would fund scholarships for last year's graduates with earnings from the $400 million set-aside that are expected to total $3.1 million. The remaining $4.9 million of the governor's request would come through a fiscal note attached to HB104.

An education subcommittee also added $2 million to a pre-kindergarten program. And it strongly recommended the full committee reject Parnell's request of $30.3 million in one-time funding to address increased school energy and student transportation costs in favor of a bill guaranteeing automatic increases in education funding over three years, passed by the Senate earlier this session.

Parnell and some House Republicans have bristled at automatic increases, citing budget concerns and accountability for how additional money is being spent.

The Senate's proposal also would set aside $2.9 million for a coastal management program in case voters pass a ballot initiative this year re-establishing the program, and it would provide another $1.7 million for correctional center staffing.

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