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While $300M for Alaska schools was a boost, some say it's not enough

Pat Forgey
Gov. Sean Parnell, pictured here speaking to the Pacific NorthWest Economic Region Summit on July 16, 2013 in Anchorage, said he came out of his "entrenched position" opposing a BSA increase, and recognized that there was merit to the arguments by schools that they needed the stability that came with including the funding in the regular formula. Loren Holmes photo

JUNEAU -- If this hadn't been declared the "education session" of the Alaska Legislature, who knows what might have happened with school funding.

Legislators battled not just over how much schools should get, but how it should be provided.

Still, Gov. Sean Parnell said the omnibus education bill passed by the Legislature will "put more funding into classrooms across the state." He is scheduled to sign House Bill 278, the Education Opportunity Act, Tuesday in Wasilla. It provides an additional $300 million for schools over three years, something Parnell called a "significant increase" for which legislators should be praised.

The total dollar amount going towards education is going up, as the governor said. In fact, lawmakers actually increased the modest funding amount originally proposed by Parnell, and with his approval.

Still, school officials around the state that are just now finalizing next year's budgets say the amount is not enough, especially following years in which the per-student base student allocation funding was stagnant. One-time funding increases that were provided instead failed to cover rising costs, they said.

"The funding increases do not make districts whole and many will still be facing staff layoffs," said Sunni Hilts, president of the Association of Alaska School Boards.

School advocates, including school board, parent and teacher groups, strongly encouraged the BSA to be increased, channeling the state funding to local school districts to spend as they see fit.

After years of opposing an increase to the BSA, Parnell this year reversed course and agreed to an increase to the BSA.

Parnell said he came out of his "entrenched position" opposing a BSA increase, and recognized that there was merit to the arguments by schools that they needed the stability that came with including the funding in the regular formula.

But Parnell and legislators also had their own ideas about what should be done to improve education in Alaska, and that includes targeting funding in areas they think are more important than local school boards sometimes do.

A big part of that are charter schools, which will now be easier to create, with the minimum size for schools dropped to 75 students. Further, the Parnell administration will have new powers to overrule local districts and create charter schools even when they may not approve.

In addition to increasing financial support for charter schools, there are also new funds for residential schools and correspondence schools. Those school types are favored by some key legislators who hope they'll provide new, more cost-effective ways of educating Alaska's children.

Parnell called on his opponents to come out of their entrenched positions as well, and while he won some charter school increases, he didn't get support for amending the Alaska Constitution to allow public money to go to private and religious schools.

The bill also calls for more online or digital options for delivering education, as well as expanding the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program.

But critics said the increase Parnell said amounted to $300 million wasn't enough.

"In the year of education, education came last," said Senate Minority Leader Hollis French, D-Anchorage.

Complicating the examination of school funding are two different ways in which legislators and school leaders used to measure increases.

One is simply total dollars, while the other is the base student allocation, the per-student amount on which most school funding is based. This year a divided Legislature split the difference, putting $150 million into BSA increases and $150 million outside the BSA, but with some of that amount allocated similar to the formula, but without the implied commitment for future years' funding.

But Rep. Sam Kito, D-Juneau, said that the claimed increase of $300 million couldn't be divided evenly among schools to calculate a BSA equivalent because so much is targeted for specific programs.

And it's also not the multi-year solution which was hoped for.

"It's a nice increase in the BSA this first year, hopefully enough to stave off some layoffs," he said.

But because it doesn't cover expected cost increases in the next two years, it's likely there will be more layoffs in the following two years, he said.

AASB's Hilts, a member of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School Board, said the Legislature's action this year sets up battles over school funding for at least the next two years.

Contact Pat Forgey at pat(at)alaskadispatch.com