JUNEAU -- After years of cuts to Alaska's schools, education advocates say they're seeing signs of hope they haven't seen in years.
After fending off attempts in the State House to make radical changes to Gov. Sean Parnell's omnibus education bill, advocates say they're finding new optimism in the more education-friendly Senate.
Parnell's House Bill 278 includes multiple educations reforms, from allowing testing out of classes to elimination of the High School Graduation Qualification Exam. But the "big enchilada" in the closely-watched bill is its funding provisions, especially to the base student allocation said Sen. Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, co-chair of the powerful Senate Finance Committee.
The BSA represents the amount of money provided to state schools on a per-student basis. Parnell originally asked for a BSA increase of $85, which was more than doubled by the House. Meyer and co-chair Sen. Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, said they expect the Senate to add even more, with a final increase to the BSA of about $300. The current BSA is $5,680.
That increase is good, said members of Great Alaska Schools, a group of parents, students and community members advocating for more school funding.
A suggestion of greater funding
The suggestions of more school funding money came Monday in questions asked by Kelly and Meyer of school funding experts with the Department of Education and Early Development and the Division of Legislative Finance. "It's great that they're asking questions, but we're not going to say 'we're super excited,' just to hear that number come of (Kelly's) mouth," said Alison Arians, with Great Alaska Schools. "But, we are hopeful."
Members of the Finance Committee discussed possible action on Parnell's bill, including funding levels, during bill hearings Monday. A new version of the bill, known as a committee substitute, is expected as soon as Tuesday and will likely include those changes.
Meyer detailed how the complicated education funding plan would be structured, and what the impact would be on state budgets.
Complicating things for Meyer and his fellow lawmakers was that the Legislature in recent years had added additional money for schools into the budget, but outside of the BSA. The Senate Finance Committee intends to add about $400 to the BSA, he said, but take out one-time money and that will bring the equivalent BSA increase to $300. Future years would get smaller increases intended to remain equivalent with inflation.
Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, has said that schools need a BSA increase of $400 to restore the losses of recent years.
The question of whether or not to include education increases in the formula-based BSA or elsewhere in the budget has divided legislators and school advocates in recent years, but Legislative Finance Director David Teal said too much may be being made of the BSA question. "School districts would argue that money inside the formula is permanent, and allows them to plan long-term," he said.
But they can actually count on one-time money the same way, he said. "As long as I've been here I've never seen one-time money go away," he said.
The benefit of one-time money
Teal also acknowledged that one-time money has another advantage. Money included in the BSA counts against what's known as the municipal "funding cap." Many local governments are required to make contributions to their local school districts, but many pay more than the required minimum. A few -- Anchorage, Juneau, Unalaska and others -- fund as much as state law will allow, known as "funding to the cap."
Allowing wealthy communities to put extra money into their local schools could result in unfair variations in school funding, which is the reason for the mandated cap.
Teal said that if the extra money is provided to schools in the BSA, that increases the amount local communities can provide under the cap, and could result in extra millions to Anchorage and other school districts.
"There are half a dozen school districts in the state whose communities fund to the cap," Teal said.
The ability for larger local contributions is something that some school advocates have sought, but which has not necessarily been embraced by all the communities that fund to the cap.
Some school funding disputes from the House of Representatives are threatening to find new life in the Senate as well. In the House, a provision was inserted in committee and then removed on the floor that would have provided extra money to the state's largest schools, including the Anchorage and Mat-Su districts.
Monday's Senate Finance Committee discussion included suggestions that controversy might carry over to the Senate, despite the House floor vote that removed the provision.
Sen. Mike Dunleavy, R-Wasilla, said Mat-Su and other big schools might need the money more than smaller districts and may be facing bigger shortfalls. "Why is it that some school districts are not calling us and saying 'We need more money?'" he asked. "Our largest school districts seem to be the ones having trouble," he said, which was the reason for the House's attempt at providing them more money.
Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, like Dunleavy a member of the Senate Finance Committee, said he reads the newspapers in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau and understands they are facing layoffs, but so are schools in communities without daily papers.
"It's a shame that the smaller schools in rural areas don't get the media attention but that doesn't mean that they don't have the same problems," he said.
Arians of Great Alaska Schools said her group's members don't want to help some schools while leaving others behind.
"We're not just in it for Anchorage, we're in it for everybody," said Arians, an Anchorage School District parent.
The Legislative session ends its statutory 90-day run on Sunday, giving legislators little time for further bill work, especially if they leave early in order to spend Easter Sunday at home, as Senate President Charlie Huggins, R-Wasilla, and House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, have stated as a goal.
Contact Pat Forgey at pat(at)alaskadispatch.com.