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Senate has new education bill, but parents give it failing grade

Richard Mauer

JUNEAU -- The Senate Finance Committee released a new version of the education bill Friday and its co-chairman, Sen. Pete Kelly, said parents should be happy with its funding for schools and "declare victory."

But parents who have been patrolling the Capitol for weeks, tracking the progress of the bill, expressed deep disappointment -- and no interest in cheering and going home.

The bill added nothing to the per student state funding formula -- the base student allocation. It held the BSA to $5,680, the same amount it has been since 2011.

Republicans said the bill had $100 million for schools, the "equivalent" of a $400 increase in the BSA. But that equivalent was only reached by counting money taken out of the budget and then added back in, and by counting earmarks to other school programs.

Rebecca Bernard, one of the spokeswomen for the newly formed Great Alaska Schools Anchorage, said the "new money" in the bill for classrooms amounted to $50 million -- a $200 equivalent BSA increase in 2015 and zero in each of the next two years.

Bernard said that's actually a dollar less than the original bill submitted to the Legislature in January by Gov. Sean Parnell, when he declared 2014 to be the "Education Session" of the Legislature. Parnell would have added $85 to the BSA in 2015 and $58 in each of the next two years.

With teacher layoffs looming in districts throughout the state, including Anchorage, Great Alaska Schools and Democrats in the Legislature have been calling for a $400 increase in the BSA for 2015, and $125 in each of the next two years. That would restore money lost to inflation since the last BSA raise, allowing districts to restore hundreds of positions already cut and forestalling the need for future layoffs.

"This bill does provide some new money, and yes, money for education is a good thing, but it does not get us close to the 400-125-125 in the BSA that we need," Bernard said. "And the reason we need it in the BSA is that's where we can depend on it, that's what districts can budget, that's where you know it will not go away."

She said the funding bump amounted to "one-year money" -- like a bonus, not a raise. It would be irresponsible, she said, for districts to hire teachers based on that funding.

"This bill does not stop the teacher and staff cuts," she said.

But conservatives in the Legislature have been criticizing the school funding formula for years. Sen. Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, the other finance committee co-chairman, said at a news conference after the new version was released that the bill calls for a study of how to pay for schools in the future. The current formula, which includes the BSA, has been in place since 1997, he said.

Kelly, R-Fairbanks, said the money in the bill should be considered "safe" and will likely be kept in the budget in future years.

"Our experience has been that when money goes into education, it doesn't get taken out," Kelly said. "We didn't want to put more money into the BSA and freeze in place a system that I think a lot people think doesn't work very well -- there are serious flaws in it, and we need to address those over the next few years."

The new version is a Senate Finance Committee substitute for House Bill 278, which started out as Parnell's omnibus education bill and then became Alaska's Education Opportunity Act. Since January, it's grown from 18 to 43 pages.

"It's a bill that looks at innovation and expanding approaches such as home schools, correspondence schools, charter schools, residential facilities, and it has some career tech components in there," Sen. Mike Dunleavy, R-Wasilla, said at the news conference. "But the bulk of it is really geared at our traditional neighborhood school concept, the mainstay of our educational system."

Of the $100 million in the bill, about $25 million will go to non-neighborhood schools and other programs, Meyer said, leaving $75 million for traditional schools. Of that, $25 million is restoration of money that schools had gotten in previous years but had been cut in the first version of the state budget, he said.

Even though the BSA isn't being increased, the funding to schools will be distributed using the same formula, Kelly said.

Parents who "get really wrapped up" in demanding money go through the BSA are overlooking the support provided by the committee to education, Kelly said.

"There's a lot more resources going into parental choice and community choice," Kelly said.

Speaking of the parents who have working the hallways and offices, Kelly said, "They should declare victory. If they go away as if they somehow failed, I think they missed the entire point of the whole session."

As he spoke, Bernard was watching from the back of the room. Talking to reporters afterward, she said she was still hopeful the bill would be amended to increase the BSA before the Legislature's statutory adjournment date Sunday.

No matter what happens, she said, she agreed it was true that parents had achieved tremendous success, but it wasn't in the area Kelly was talking about.

"We'll declare victory in the sense that we are really energized," she said. Great Alaska Schools could evolve into an ongoing political force, she added.

"I don't think this group is going away," Bernard said. "I'm not going away."

Reach Richard Mauer at rmauer@adn.com or (907) 500-7388.


By RICHARD MAUER
rmauer@adn.com