Alaska Democrats propose increased per-student education spending

Lisa Demer

JUNEAU -- A month after Gov. Sean Parnell declared 2014 "the education session," Democratic legislators on Thursday unveiled an ambitious and expensive agenda on that front -- and said they are undeterred by being a small minority in a capital with one-party Republican rule.

The suite of legislation by House and Senate Democrats includes some proposals already highlighted as well as new ideas: a one-time $5,000 bonus for excellent principals, a mechanism for parents to turn all or part of their neighborhood school into a charter school, and the creation of state start-up grants for charter schools.

Charter schools are immensely popular with parents. They have more independence than neighborhood schools and may offer alternative teaching methods or curriculum.

The biggest ticket item proposed by Democrats would boost base school funding by $404 per student in the coming budget year, almost five times the $85 a student proposed by the governor. That would allow districts to avoid projected cuts for the coming school year and also make up some of what's been lost in the last three years, said Rep. Les Gara of Anchorage.

It also would put into law a requirement that the funding formula be adjusted for inflation from now on, so that school districts could count on steady funding increases and avoid what's become an annual frenzy of layoffs and pink notices.

"We've been looking at inflation proofing literally for decades and it hasn't happened," said Rep Harriet Drummond of Anchorage, a former school board member.

The per-student increase alone would cost about $100 million in the coming year, according to the state Legislative Finance Division.

The per-student funding level has been the same, $5,680, since the 2010-11 school year, according to the finance division.

School districts around the state have laid off more than 600 teachers and other staff members, Gara of Anchorage said.

"Under the governor's latest proposal, he's going to lay off another 212 just in Anchorage, Juneau, Fairbanks and Kodiak," Gara told reporters Thursday. "That's moving education backwards, not forwards. Our bill reverses cuts from prior years and makes sure next year's cuts don't happen."

Republican leaders didn't immediately reject the Democrats' agenda, but they didn't embrace it either.

"The governor has not reviewed the details of their package, however he is pleased that the discussion on education is continuing," his spokeswoman, Sharon Leighow, said in an email.

House Republicans, who talked to reporters just after the Democrats unveiled their proposal, were ready with their own talking points.

"We have increased funding for schools ever since I've been here," said state Rep. Peggy Wilson, R-Wrangell, who has been in the Legislature since 2001.

While the amount allocated per-student hasn't gone up, overall there's been "a massive increase" over inflation, House Speaker Mike Chenault asserted.

David Teal, director of the Legislative Finance Division, said that school funding has gone up over the years once items like one-time state grants, retirement system payments and school construction and maintenance are included.

"All these things, it's likely a superintendent would say 'they don't matter, they don't go into my classroom. What good does a school being constructed in Kwethluk do for my education budget?'" Teal said. "But from the Legislature's perspective, it's not what you get to operate your district, it's what the Legislature spends on education."

Federal dollars have been cut dramatically, Chenault said, but he acknowledged that the squeeze on local districts is pushing the state to step up.

"I think the Legislature, by the end of this legislative session, will put together a package that will address some of those needs. Whether we get to $405 or whatever the fictitious number that's out there, we'll see."

Democrats say some of their proposals wouldn't cost much though they didn't have firm estimates yet.

One proposal would boost the per-student funding for charter schools by 10 percent to cover rent and utility costs. Rep. Chris Tuck of Anchorage, the minority leader, estimated that would cost $3 million to $4 million a year.

Some Republicans are pushing a constitutional amendment to allow public spending for private schools, which they call "school choice."

Democrats are fighting that and on Thursday Sen. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, proposed creating a new path for charter schools as a way "to increase choice, maintaining accountability and promoting excellence."

Lawmakers all want to do the best they can for kids and schools, the Republican House leaders said, and they have plenty to consider. Around 60 bills and resolutions on education have been filed on 30 different subjects, Wilson said.

Asked whether the Democrats' package will get hearings, Chenault said he didn't know but assumed some elements were included in the 60 or so bills already filed.

Parnell wants the Democrats to sign onto his proposal, which also includes more funding for boarding schools and more charter school opportunities, his spokeswoman said.

On the latter, the governor is taking a different strategy by allowing proposals for a charter school rejected by local school boards to get a second chance before the state education commissioner.

Democrats doubted that would do much.

But they agree on one point: elimination of the high school exit exam. That's part of both the Democrats' and the governor's education package. And a House Republican, Rep. Pete Higgins of Fairbanks, also has a bill to repeal it.

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