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By pumping millions more into Alaska schools, lawmakers dodge some critics

Pat Forgey

JUNEAU -- Facing public criticism over a stingy education budget, the Senate Finance Committee Saturday added millions to its version of Gov. Sean Parnell's education bill before sending it to the Senate floor for action Sunday.

Reversing course from a proposal made Friday, the committee said that funding for additional programs -- including benefits for home-schooled children, charter schools and residential schools -- would be on top of an extra $100 million going to schools this year.

Sen. Mike Dunleavy, R-Wasilla, said he hopes the new money will allay concerns that legislators aren't funding schools sufficiently.

"The idea that the state is not adequately funding public education can be laid to rest with what occurred here today, but we'll see if that happens," he said.

'Better than disaster of yesterday'

School advocates called Saturday's increase an improvement, but not much of one.

"It looks better than the disaster of yesterday, but it's still not enough," said Alyse Gavlin, an Anchorage parent with the grassroots organization Great Alaska Schools.

The Senate Finance Committee had earlier announced support for $100 million in extra education funding, but said that some of that amount would be devoted to several legislators’ favorite education projects and would not be available for school districts to spend in the classroom.

Sen. Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, said that the plan now is now for the extra projects, likely costing up to $25 million, to be in addition to, rather than part of, the $100 million boost to Alaska schools.

"We've decided to add on top of that," for a total of well over $100 million, he said.

The extra $100 million would be routed to local districts on a per-student basis he said, but senators were adamant that the amount should not go in what’s known as the base student allocation (BSA), the per-student amount on which state aid to school districts is based. 

School advocates had been adamant that schools need to be able to count on money, and wanted the injection of funds added to the current $5,680 BSA.

Meyer said an increase of $25 million in funding was equivalent to a $100 BSA hike, and he cited public comments from Anchorage school leaders that $400 increase to the BSA would prevent school district cuts. Consequently, the $100 million boost should prevent those cuts in Anchorage.

He wasn't sure about other districts.

"We feel like it's pretty good funding for education," Meyer said.

Seeking sustainable, stable funding

But representatives of Great Alaska Schools as well as legislative Democrats said the increase should be in the BSA, giving schools assurance the money will be there in future years as well.

"Our primary focus is adequate, sustainable, stable funding for our schools statewide," said Jessie Menkens, of Great Alaska Schools. That means in the BSA, she said.

Senate Democratic Leader Hollis French, D-Anchorage, said the resistance to including school money in the BSA began with Gov. Parnell and has lasted for years.

"For some reason, beginning about four to five years ago, the governor decided that was not the place to put money and he's got a substantial number of his Republican legislators to agree," French said.

This year Parnell proposed a BSA increase, but legislators maintained their opposition to including any extra funding in the BSA.

About a $111 million boost in total

Meyer said that while one Legislature cannot bind future lawmakers, the intent is that the $100 million increase be maintained for the next two years as well, meaning that there will be stable funding for schools.

While the total value of the proposed increase to the state will be $100 million, plus about $25 million for the extra programs, the total cost to the state won't be that high. That's because there are savings, including the elimination of the high school graduation qualification test.

Also, a change in how local contributions for schools are calculated will shift about $12 million in costs from the state to local cities and boroughs, Meyer said .

That's likely to cost Anchorage about $5.5 million, with lesser amounts for other municipalities.

The total changes, additions and savings, mean that the increase will be about $111 million, Meyer said.

Among other changes to the bill in the Senate are an elimination of a controversial House provision to lengthen the time it takes for some teachers to earn tenure.

Earlier, the Senate had taken out a provision aimed at attacking national common core educational standards, but with an unclear effect on Alaska standards.

Sen. Anna Fairclough, R-Anchorage, said that the education bill was difficult to put together, with competing priorities among legislators. Ultimately, it was a good package, she said. "I hope that we can get 11 votes on the Senate floor to actually pass an education bill," she said. 

There are 20 members of the Senate.

Contact Pat Forgey at pat(at)alaskadispatch.com