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Compromise reached on education funding, but school advocates disappointed

Richard Mauer

JUNEAU -- The House-Senate free conference committee announced a compromise on the education bill Wednesday evening that will provide $100 million a year for local schools in each of the next three years.

The compromise, which required staff to work late into the night to produce and proofread an actual bill, would have put the Legislature on a path to finally adjourn Thursday, four days past its 90-day statutory deadline.

But new evidence of dysfunction between the Republican-led House and Senate emerged about an hour later Wednesday when the House failed to approve the Senate version of a bill advancing the Knik Arm bridge. The vote was 20-18, with the two Republican House members absent, Bob Lynn of Anchorage and Lora Reinbold of Eagle River.

Under the Constitution, it takes a minimum of 21 votes to pass a bill. House Majority Leader Lance Pruitt announced the formation of a new free conference committee to try to work a compromise for the bridge bill.

The bridge bill had been on the House schedule for days. Its prime sponsor, Mark Neuman, R-Big Lake, had agreed to the Senate changes. It's rare for a vote to occur when passage isn't assured.

In the new version of the education bill, the total dollar amount for schools districts is almost as much as the Senate would have provided. But unlike the Senate bill, the compromise puts some money into the per-student formula called the base student allocation (BSA).

Under the compromise, the BSA would rise $150 in 2015 and $50 in each of the following years after flat funding since 2011. But that's significantly less than the House bill's 185-58-58 and much less than school districts like Anchorage say they need to bring back staff who have been laid off in recent years and prevent cuts into the future, roughly 400-125-125.

About $50 million a year will be distributed outside the BSA under the proposal, though some of that will go to special projects. School districts say they prefer the BSA because it's more predictable and cumulative. Like a salary raise, money added in one year becomes the base the next year. Money outside the BSA is like a bonus that shouldn't be used for long-term expenses, like hiring teachers, they say.

The free conference committee was made necessary when the House and Senate refused to accept each other's versions of the education bill. The conference committee chairman, Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage, said the committee would meet again Thursday at 10 a.m. to formally adopt the printed bill, then send it to the House and Senate for a vote. Neither body can make amendments to a free conference committee report, but they can reject it.

In a prepared statement, Gov. Sean Parnell praised the compromise as something that should please both sides -- those that wanted "certainty of a substantial increase to the base student allocation, and those seeking more school choice and accountability. Alaska's students and families are well served with this bill."

But the parents from Great Alaska Schools who have been watching the progress of the education bill said they were disappointed.

"It's three years of cuts," said Alyse Galvin, an Anchorage parent and one of the group's spokeswomen. "We are here and we will be here until the cuts stop."

Galvin said parents appreciated the attention that education has gotten, but not the outcome.

"We've been around the building now for 31/2 weeks and I've seen a lot of dollars going out of this building. I can tell you that they did not give education the priority that we as a coalition of parents and community members and business people, and AFN said -- this is where we want you to put money, put it into our kiddos."

Deena Mitchell, another parent, said she's heard complaints that schools are not performing, but she said statistics show a different story.

"We'd like to know what are the results they're looking for -- we've increased graduation rates, we've increased performance, we've decreased truancy," Mitchell said.

The compromise bill took out some money sought by Sens. Michael Dunleavy, R-Wasilla, and Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, for specific projects.

But both senators served on the conference committee and were able to salvage some programs by taking a share of the new funding, about $20 million: $5 million to start wiring schools, largely in the Bush, with broadband Internet; more money for charter schools; and approval for home study students to accumulate unspent money they're allotted by a district but don't spend in a year, as long as the money is spent for education and the student remains associated with that district.

The committee dropped another program sought by Dunleavy, an experiment to provide students electronic tablets to replace textbooks and to enable all students to participate in distance learning and other new technologies.

The compromise dropped a House provision that lengthened the time for urban teachers to achieve tenure, from three years to five. All teachers will remain at three years, but the committee authorized a study of tenure, salary and benefits statewide.

"This package maintains what we currently have but helps us look to the future," Dunleavy said. "This buys us some time to explore these things in detail. The only thing I ask of folks is to not be afraid of change."

Reach Richard Mauer at rmauer@adn.com or 257-4345.

 


By RICHARD MAUER
rmauer@adn.com