AD Main Menu

Education bill prioritizes funding hike for special programs over per-student funds

Pat Forgey
Students attend class at Academy Charter School in Palmer on Feb. 5, 2014. Under an education funding bill currently in the state Senate, an increase in Alaska's base student allocation has been passed over in favor of funding increases for certain programs, including charter schools. Loren Holmes photo

JUNEAU -- Alaska schools are being offered what Senate Republican leaders are saying is generous funding for next year, but it is less than school advocates said Alaska schools need to stave off another year of teacher and other cuts.

And millions of dollars in that modest increase aren't being targeted for the classroom but for key legislators' favorite programs, such as charter schools.

Where the increases won't be going is into the base student allocation, the per-student amount around which the state school funding system revolves and with which local school districts pay most of their bills. That amount will remain fixed for yet another year at $5,680, and for the next two years as well.

That was intentional, said Sen. Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, because legislators have their own priorities for how they want money spent.

"A lot of times people think all of the money needs to go into the BSA and walk away, but we are actually trying to incentivize change and trying to capitalize on those programs that we know work," he said.

Among those he cited were charter schools -- favorites of conservatives even in Alaska, where they are part of the public school system.

"Charter schools, at least in Anchorage, some of them have huge waiting lists," Meyer said.

Other priorities in the budget include homeschools, correspondence schools, residential schools, and career and technical education, said Sen. Mike Dunleavy, R-Wasilla.

Those are innovative programs that engage a wider array of Alaskans in the public education system, he said.

Meyer said key legislators agreed to provide $100 million extra for schools in this year's budget, the equivalent to about a $400 increase in the BSA. But because there's already $25 million outside the BSA in the budget, the equivalent increase is really the equivalent of $300, he acknowledged.

That's not enough, school advocates said, especially since much of the money is targeted for special uses. 

"This bill does provide some new money, but it's not even close" to the amount needed to prevent layoffs, said Becca Bernard, with Great Alaska Schools, an informal school funding support group. 

Bernard said the "equivalent" number to the BSA that senators are touting was actually $200 per year after the subtractions for special programs, or half what was needed. 

And, she said, because that $200 per year is continued for two years but not increased, it comes out to less than the $201 Gov. Sean Parnell proposed for the next three years. 

Senators said there was concern about continuing to provide money to schools through the BSA because many legislators thought that system was unfair to larger schools. The Senate Finance Committee did not attempt to change the area and size factors after a failed attempt to do so earlier in the House Finance Committee blew up and was rejected by the full House.

Instead, the Senate version of the bill introduced Friday calls for studies, funded by the Legislature, into whether those factors need to be adjusted and whether the foundation formula currently in use is still accurate. In the House, representatives from Anchorage and other districts with large schools said they believed the formula unfairly shortchanged large schools, but they had nothing with which to back up that assertion.

Meyer said that there may be something to that claim, and the studies will help determine that. 

"We didn't want to put more money into the formula when we knew it had some issues and concerns," he said. 

The Senate education bill also provides a cost-cutting measure for the state, dropping the portion of bonded debt that the state will reimburse for local school district capital projects, such as remodeling or upgrading existing schools or building new facilities.

Currently the state matches that on a 70-30 basis, but the the Senate is proposing reducing that to 60-40.

That could save the state money, said Education Commissioner Mike Hanley, possibly even more than the smaller match amount. Local districts will have to have "a little bit more skin in the game" in order to build new schools, he said.   

Some projects may not get built at all, he said.

That 70 percent reimbursement will end June 30, meaning that the only school district that will qualify for the higher amount this year is Anchorage, which holds its bonding approval elections in April, while others do later in the year.

The bill also calls for a statewide salary study, and the state may look at creation of a statewide pay schedule for teachers, rather than leaving that up to local districts.

There will be no public hearings on the education bill before it comes to a vote, Meyer said.  

With two days left in the regular 90-day legislative session, senators will have to hurry to pass House Bill 278 on the Senate floor and then receive concurrence from the House before adjournment Sunday.

Contact Pat Forgey at pat(at)alaskadispatch.com