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Educators, legislators respond to details of Parnell's education plan

Pat Forgey
Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell on Friday offered a more detailed look at an education proposal alluded to in his State of the State address, which included a modest increase in the state's per-student funding formula. Loren Holmes photo

JUNEAU -- Schools seeking more more funding, at least enough to keep up with rising costs, say they are encouraged that Gov. Sean Parnell Friday proposed his first-ever increase in the base student allocation, the per-student state support that provides the foundation for school budgets.

But they say they're going to need more than Parnell's proposal just to hold even.

"We still need significantly more, but that will help," said Andi Story, president-elect of the Alaska Association of School Boards and a member of the Juneau School Board.

Parnell introduced legislation proposing an increase to the BSA, currently $5,680 per student, of $85 per student for the next year, the 2015 fiscal and academic year.

That amounts to an increase of 1.5 percent. For each of the next two years, Parnell is proposing increases of $58 in the BSA, or about 1 percent per year.

'Starting place'

Along with Juneau, Fairbanks is also looking at eliminating teacher positions to deal with budget shortfalls. Fairbanks schools superintendent Pete Lewis called Parnell's proposal a good start.

"The fact that he has put money in is a positive move," said Lewis. "It's a starting place, we're early in the session, and let's see if we can get that number up to a spot that's good for public education."

For the last three years, the rate of inflation has been well above what Parnell is proposing. According to the Department of Labor, the Anchorage Consumer Price Index rose 3.1 percent in 2013, 2.2 percent in 2012, and 3.2 percent in 2011.

But Story said that after years of cuts they'd need closer to 8 percent to break even.

"We need $425 (per student) just to keep what we have," she said.

The education union NEA-Alaska on Friday expressed appreciation for Parnell's willingness to discuss raising the BSA, but dismay at the small size of the increase.

"We are disappointed and saddened for our students, because clearly a $201 increase to the BSA over the next three years in no way will stop the teacher layoffs and program cuts that school districts are proposing across the state for the 2014-15 school year," said Ron Fuhrer, NEA-Alaska president, in a statement Friday.

Parnell told reporters Thursday that he was showing leadership on education by trying to bring the two sides together. One side, he said, thinks all education problems can be solved with money, while the other wants more accountability in exchange for more funding.

No strings on funding

While Parnell was offering at least some more money, he was also asking for something from the Legislature: action on a constitutional amendment that would allow public money to go to private schools.

In Parnell's address, he appeared to link an increase in the BSA to other proposals he supported, such as support for Senate Joint Resolution 9, allowing public school money to go to private and religious schools.

In a press conference later, Parnell backed off an explicit link, and Senate Education Committee Chair Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, said he was glad to hear that.

"I thought I heard in his speech that somehow additional funding was tied to SJR 9, and I'm really pleased to hear that it's not," Steven said.

But Rep. Lora Reinbold, R-Wasilla, said SJR 9 would only benefit students.

"We've got pockets of success all over the state, and to open up those opportunities to other students is a brilliant idea," she said.

Rep. Les Gara D-Anchorage, is a public school product who says the public schools are the state's responsibility and need the help.

"Let's not play games. We have a public school system that we have a responsibility for; let's keep it a vibrant part of our economy and not damage the chances for success of a whole new generation," he said.

Parnell's Senate Bill 139, introduced Friday, includes a number of provisions aimed at reforming education. In addition to the $21 million cost of the BSA increase, Parnell is also proposing additional money to be made available for stipends for new residential schools operated by local districts. Those would be similar to the state-operated Mt. Edgecumbe High School in Sitka.

That would cost about $2.25 million. He's also proposing that the state pick up the cost for each student's first ACT or SAT test for college-bound students, along with the WorkKeys test for those not aiming for college.

Whether Parnell can win support for any BSA increase in the Legislature is another question.

In prior legislative sessions, those reluctant to spend more on schools have said they wouldn't provide more money without more accountability.

Progress, but uncertainty

School districts detailed lists of accomplishments achieved without BSA increases.

Juneau's Story said schools don’t know how to meet the Legislature's demands, which are rarely specific, but if legislators got into their local schools they’d most likely be happy with what the saw.

"What I hear is that people are really concerned about the graduation rate, and we've been making so much progress there," she said.

But she said she doesn't know what measurement legislators will find enough, to meet the "accountability" that's being demanded.

That's something that House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, complained publicly about last year, highlighting the challenges that school advocates are facing.

"There are truly members that think we should not increase education funding without accountability, and as I've explained to them, I'm okay with accountability," he said. "But you have to be able to tell them what you want so they know what to go out and produce.

"If we can't tell them what we went, then how do we hold back that funding," he asked.

This year Stevens, Story and others have praised Parnell for his declaration of an "education session" with the statement made earlier in the session.

They also praised Parnell for his willingness to now accept a BSA increase.

"Is that a change of position? Of course it is, but that's how governors lead," Parnell said.

Contact Pat Forgey at pat(at)alaskadispatch.com