House approves modest increase in per-student education funding

Richard Mauer

JUNEAU -- The House added a modest increase to the per student allocation of state money to local districts during floor action Monday evening on the omnibus education bill.

In a session that started about 5:30 p.m. and dragged on till after midnight Wednesday morning, the House passed the bill, House Bill 278, 29-11. The bill moves to the Senate, where a Finance Committee hearing was scheduled for Wednesday morning.

Nine of the 10 minority Democrats voted against it because it didn't send enough money to school districts. They also expressed concerns about other issues, such as the bill's tax credits for donations to private schools. Among the minority, only Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka, supported the bill.

Among Republicans and the Bush Democrats who caucus with them, two conservatives opposed the measure: Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, who said its budget impact was unsustainable, and Rep. Mark Neuman, R-Big Lake, who didn't speak during the debate on the bill's passage. Wilson and Republicans who said they were reluctantly supporting the measure said education funding from the state has risen substantially over the last decade with not much to show in the way of school performance.

The base student allocation increase, added as a broad amendment to the bill by Rep. Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham, fell short of the amount that legislators say has been lost to inflation since the most recent increase in the BSA in 2011.

But it would more than double the increase proposed originally by Gov. Sean Parnell after he declared 2014 to be the Legislature's "education session." It comes after months of increasing pressure on lawmakers by parents, students, teachers and administrators to raise the level of state education funding education to avert layoffs in Anchorage and most, if not all, of the state's big school districts.

Edgmon's amendment to House Bill 278 passed 27-13. The House debated other amendments deep into the night before the midnight vote on the entire measure. A much larger increase to the base student allocation was proposed by House Democrats later Monday, but it met the same fate as their other amendments against the overwhelming force of the Republican majority.

The bipartisan exception was Amendment 2, proposed by Edgmon, who caucuses with the majority Republicans. His proposal:

• Maintains the 2015 base student allocation increase at $185. That's what it is in the current bill, but the House's budget bill, a separate measure, removes one-time funding to school districts of $25 million. To the state's school districts, the lost $25 million equates to about $100 of the $185 BSA.

• To make up for the lost $25 million, it adds a one-time $30 million boost to education. Though not in the BSA, it would be paid to school districts using the BSA formula. So where the budget bill took away $25 million, the amendment added $30 million, the rough equivalent of a $121 one-time boost to the BSA.

• Restores the funding formula to the one that exists under current state law. The education bill changed the formula to benefit urban districts over rural ones. That formula shift would have been so beneficial to Anchorage that nearly all the school district's $23 million budget shortfall would have vanished. Mat-Su schools would also have reaped a big windfall.

Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, one of the Democrat's leaders on education issues, said that all of the amendment's effects would amount to a $15.3 million increase for Anchorage schools when $23 million is needed to avoid layoffs and other cutbacks. His own amendment would have raised the BSA by $404. Combined with the additional $30 million, the additional revenue for 2015 for Anchorage would have been $31.5 million, enough to restore cuts made in previous years.

In future budget years, the education bill, as amended, would only add $58 to the allocation in 2016 and 2017. Gara's amendment would have added $200 in each of those years.

All Anchorage representatives voted for Edgmon's amendment, number 2, except Reps. Lora Reinbold and Dan Saddler, both Eagle River Republicans. Mat-Su Republicans voting against it were Lynn Gattis, Shelley Hughes, Wes Keller, Mark Neuman and Bill Stoltze.

As Gara introduced his own amendment, number 11, he said, "Without this amendment, we're going to have three more years of staff losses."

The amendment process went excruciatingly slow, with long breaks taken sometimes in the middle of debate. One amendment, offered by Reinbold, would replace the current rating system for schools of one to five stars with letter grades from A-D and F.

Twelve legislators participated in the debate on Reinbold's amendment 5. It took about 30 minutes, including a time out, to resolve. It went something like this:

"All kids are stars in someone's eyes," said Rep. Bob Herron, D-Bethel.

"We worry more now about how kids feel," said Rep. Stoltze.

"We all know about five-star hotels, five-star movies," said Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Anchorage.

"There's always room to improve," said Saddler

"We are not hotels, we are not restaurants -- we're schools!" said Reinbold.

The amendment passed, 22-18.

The House also approved an amendment by Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, to increase the number of subjects that advanced students can take a test to pass out of.

The House rejected an amendment by Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, that would have removed a tax credit in the bill to a state taxpayer who donates to a private or religious school. Josephson said the credit violated three separate sections of the state constitution because it effectively allowed public funds to be used for private schools. In support of Josephson, Gara argued that the credits would also cost the state treasury at a time when deficits were looming.

But Stoltze said the state already allows public money to be spent on religious items, such as a grant to a Jewish museum in Anchorage or money spent on "the theology of environmentalism."

Josephson's amendment failed, 16-23.

Reach Richard Mauer at or (907) 500-7388.


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