I am a member of the Great Alaska Schools Anchorage coalition of parents who are tired of watching our schools struggle, particularly with shrinking budgets. As an independent business owner, I had the flexibility to leave my family behind in Anchorage and spend the past few weeks in Juneau watching the Legislature work during this so-called "Education Session." It has been quite a learning experience.
On Friday, the Senate Finance Committee released its version of the Governor's education bill. One of the most contentious issues this session is whether any increase in education funding should be done as an increase to the "base student allocation" (BSA), or as a one-time state grant. While each option will have the same impact on the state budget, there is a huge difference in how the funds will be used by school districts. The Senate Finance Committee provided zero additional dollars in the BSA. Instead, they directed about $50 million of additional unconstrained funds (once you clear away the shell games) to districts, but not built into the BSA. That is a big distinction.
As an illustration, a change in the BSA is similar to you receiving a salary increase at work, while a one-time grant is similar to receiving a bonus. With a salary increase, you can adjust your family's budget on the expectation that so long as you keep your job, your salary should remain stable and probably keep up with inflation going forward. On the other hand, a bonus is an isolated event.
As a household, you would respond differently to a salary increase versus a one-time bonus. With a salary increase you could buy a larger house and take on a larger mortgage. Such an obligation would not be prudent in response to just a bonus. With a bonus you might make some isolated expenditures; maybe replace the old washer and dryer, send your kid to a summer camp, or put the money in the bank.
School districts will make a similar distinction between a BSA increase versus one-time funds. With a BSA increase, they can retain the current teacher staffing level -hiring teachers and staff to replace those lost to attrition, and take on that ongoing salary obligation. With one-time funds, districts will instead spend the money on buying new equipment, upgrading facilities, or putting it into reserves. Simply put, we preserve our teachers and critical staff only by putting the funds in the BSA.
The districts' different treatment of BSA versus grant funds is that much more understandable after watching some legislators balk at increasing the BSA because they want to make it easier to take the funds away in the future. How would your treatment of that bonus be affected if your boss told you, "I know you asked for a salary increase, but we don't know if we'll want to give you anything more in the future, so here's a bonus instead." Forget the higher mortgage, you'd probably just put that money in the bank, wouldn't you?
Legislators in both the House and Senate Finance Committees say that they do not like to "tie future legislators' hands" by increasing the BSA. Yes, increasing the BSA does make the money more secure for districts, and more difficult for legislators to reduce in the future. But that's precisely what makes those funds available to hire teachers. If the funding were unlikely to continue, it would not be appropriate or effective for the school districts to use those funds to hire teachers.
Voters in Alaska need to let legislators know that they are damaging schools by keeping the necessary funds out of the BSA. Alaskans expect our legislators to be straight with us, not play shell games with education funds, and we want them to prioritize education funding over other expenditures. With the session potentially ending on Sunday, please contact legislators today and raise your voice on this issue. You can find a list of legislators to contact at www.greatalaskaschools.org.
Alyse Galvin is the mom of four kids currently in or graduated from Alaska's public school system.
By ALYSE GALVIN