Compass: We need to figure out the real cost of successful public schools

What does it cost to provide all Alaska children with a quality education? As state revenues decline, it's more important than ever that we understand this, and spend our education dollars wisely. But today, in Alaska, we really don't know. We know how much we spend on our schools but not whether it is too much, just right or not enough.

To get technical for a minute, state funding makes up more than 60 percent of school districts' operating revenues (much more in some districts). Most of that funding comes through the Foundation Formula, a complex set of calculations that starts with district enrollment, adjusts it by many factors including school size, special-needs students, correspondence students and the district cost differential (an estimate of how much more it costs to educate students in remote rural districts than in Anchorage).

The result of these calculations is multiplied by the amount of funding the Legislature allocates per pupil (the Base Student Allocation, or BSA), and then adjusted again for local contributions and federal impact aid. From FY 2011 to FY 2014, the governor and Legislature have held the BSA constant. While they have provided districts with funding increases outside the Foundation Formula (mostly targeted at energy costs and unfunded pension liabilities), total funding has not kept up with increasing costs, and districts have had to make cuts.

Both the state and districts face cost increases partially or totally outside their control -- such as energy costs, health care and pension liabilities -- as well as revenue constraints.

While how the state distributes total state dollars to districts -- especially the district cost differential -- has been the subject of many studies over the last 20 years, the amount of the Base Student Allocation has not. The BSA itself isn't based on any systematic calculation of what districts need to spend so students can attain learning outcomes desired by parents, educators and employers and established by the state. Rather, it was originally set by the Legislature in the late 1990s to produce the total amount of education dollars the state was planning to spend and has been periodically adjusted upward since then.

We could argue about whether the increases have kept pace with inflation, or whether school districts face cost increases greater than (or less than) inflation, but the answers to those aren't much use since we don't know if the original level was adequate.

In the last 20 years, many states have tried to link education funding calculations to desired student outcomes. Those models consider what programs, practices and resources districts need to ensure every student can receive a quality education.

For example, some models consider the number of teachers needed not only for regular classrooms but also for special services such as extended-day programs, summer school and tutoring for high-needs students, and the cost of instructional coaches to help teachers continuously improve. Others provide targeted funds for high-needs students, and districts must document how those funds are used for those students.

This past year, both the Alaska state House and Senate created special committees to look at school finance issues. They asked a lot of good questions about whether there should be more investment in alternative school options like charter schools, public boarding schools or vouchers for private schools.

But they failed to address the fundamental question of how much we need to invest in our public schools for them to be successful. Until we determine that, we will continue to argue about the BSA instead of working together to ensure that districts have the resources they need and the best guidance for spending their money well.

Therefore, we urge the governor, Legislature and state Board of Education to undertake a thorough school finance adequacy study and perhaps rethink how we go about funding Alaska's schools.

Diane Hirshberg is an associate professor of education at the University of Alaska Anchorage and director of the Center for Alaska Education Policy Research at UAA's Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER). Alexandra Hill is a senior researcher at both the center and ISER, specializing in teacher supply, demand, turnover and evaluation.