The grass-roots group Great Alaska Schools is calling for an increase in the base student allocation (BSA). The BSA is the "bucket" of money provided by the state from which teachers, counselors and other in-school staff are paid.
From 2004 to 2011, the BSA was adjusted every year to match inflation and other rising costs. During those years, teachers and counselors were maintained and the graduation rate and student test scores increased steadily. From 2011 to the present, the BSA has not increased, and consequently Alaska's school districts have faced budget shortfalls requiring staff layoffs. Last year, the Anchorage School District laid off 15 percent of its administrative staff, and while classrooms were held harmless, counselors, teachers aides, nurses, and other staff were cut. The Anchorage School District faces a $23 million budget shortfall this year, requiring layoffs of more than 140 teachers and counselors.
In order to prevent further teacher/counselor layoffs, the BSA must be increased by $400 this year and $125 in the next two years.
Currently the Legislature is balking at raising the BSA with the argument that schools are inefficient, too expensive and too low quality to warrant the funding request. In addition, they report decreased available funds because of shrinking oil revenues. Other opposition to a significant BSA raise includes the argument that Alaska has been spending more on education every year. However, this yearly increase includes capital projects that go toward soccer fields, tennis courts and school building maintenance, but does not include increases in the "bucket" of funds that specifically pays for teachers and counselors.
Another opposing idea sites the statistic that Alaska already has a lower student to teacher ratio than any other state. This statistic is misleading however, because many of Alaska's schools are rural and in those schools the student teacher ratio can be as low as 5:1. In our urban districts, however, the average elementary school class size is closer to 28 students, and likely to go higher still with the projected round of layoffs at the end of this year.
At the beginning of the legislative session, Gov. Parnell suggested a BSA increase of $85, not nearly enough to stave off huge teacher layoffs. Last week, the House passed a budget that added $185 to the BSA. This amount is misleading as $100 of that $185 comes from $25 million in energy funding for schools that had been allocated to districts in the past, and were expected in the future; therefore not a true budget increase.
Clearly the question is: What is best for our state, and what role does the Legislature play? If our state budget is shrinking and resources must be allocated wisely, then the first goal of our society must be to maintain the health and safety of the community. The public schools are primary in this as they educate and prepare our youth to go forward and become functioning members of society.
Maintaining the highest quality schools requires teachers and counselors and is the basis for the long-term health of Alaska and the Alaskan economy.
This is a clear choice. Funding of statewide capital projects, such as the Knik Arm Bridge, or even other in-school capital projects, will need to be limited due to budget constraints. Such limits won't sit well with developers and interested communities. But the health of the state is primary, and in tough budget times education comes first.
Our legislators have been inundated with calls, letters, and emails from constituents calling for funding of the BSA and, though many support a $400/$125/$125 increase, many more do not.
In a democracy, effective legislators will follow the call of their constituents. Please contact your legislator and request that he or she support a $400/$125/$125 BSA increase. With this effort, we will see democracy in action as legislators are called to take a stand to support the overwhelming call of constituents. If you do not know who your legislators are in the House and Senate, please use http://openstates.org/find_your_legislator/.
Catherine Coward is a member of Great Alaska Schools and the parent of a Romig Middle School eighth-grader.
By CATHERINE COWARD