Years with minimal changes to Alaska’s education budget pushed school districts across the state into financial crises. But this year, state lawmakers say that the question heading into the coming legislative session isn’t whether there will be an increase to the education budget — it’s how big the increase will be.
“I think the conversation is needed and it’s absolutely one that is paramount to this Legislature to have,” said Justin Ruffridge, a Republican from Soldotna set to be sworn in to the House.
Both Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate said that an education funding boost will likely come this year through an increase to the Base Student Allocation, the per-student formula used to calculate the dollar amount school districts receive from the state.
Raising the funding amount, which has stayed almost the same since 2017, has been a key issue for some left-leaning lawmakers in past years. But budget crunches in districts across Alaska are pushing lawmakers from across the political aisle to cite increasing education funding as a key priority.
With the state House still in disarray and no presumptive speaker lined up, leading the year’s top policy push will likely fall to the Senate — where a bipartisan group of lawmakers has come together to form a coalition that’s listed education funding as one of its top goals for the year.
“Collectively, the caucus is really keen on a robust discussion about what is needed in our school districts,” said Löki Tobin, an Anchorage Democrat who is set to chair the Senate Education Committee when the newly elected Legislature is sworn in later this month. That will almost certainly include a proposal to boost the funding formula for schools, as they have struggled to pay for everything from keeping buildings warm to teachers’ salaries amid rising costs.
Alaska’s urban consumer price index has risen by more than 15% in the last five years. In the same time period, the Base Student Allocation was raised by only 0.5%, meaning virtually the same level of funding is worth significantly less.
In Anchorage, home to the state’s largest school district, administrators recommended closing six neighborhood elementary schools amid a significant budget shortfall. When the closure recommendations were made in October, right before the general election, superintendent Jharrett Bryantt said low enrollment and stagnant state funding during high inflation pushed the district to make the closure announcements.
“The bottom line is when our state government doesn’t increase education funding, it’s cutting education funding,” Bryantt wrote to staff and families. “An influx of federal COVID-19 relief dollars provided a false sense of security. The reality is our schools are being underfunded and it was never addressed by our state government.”
The announcement was followed by emotional town halls and public testimony, spurring public outcry in an effort to keep the schools from closing. In December, the school board ultimately opted to support closing only one of the six schools, Abbott Loop Elementary, while dipping into district savings and making other cuts to help solve the Anchorage district’s $48 million budget crisis.
“Our largest city experienced incredible disruptions this year that has really put a lot of the education issues at the forefront of many folks’ minds,” Tobin said. “The conversation moved out from something esoteric happening in other parts of Alaska to ‘this is happening right in my backyard.’ ”
Tobin is one of 17 members of a broad Senate majority coalition that includes nine Democrats and eight Republicans. In the House, where 21 out of 40 seats will be held by Republicans, it remains unclear who will control the majority and serve in the speaker position that sets the agenda for the chamber, with less than two weeks until the session is set to begin.
Still, incumbents and newly elected House members say that regardless of the composition of the majority, increasing the Base Student Allocation will be a priority.
“I see this as just key legislation that we need to work on this year,” said Juneau Democratic Rep. Andi Story, who co-chaired the education committee last year.
Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy, a former teacher who previously chaired the Senate Education Committee, released his proposed budget last month with no suggested increase to education funding. He said he supports adding funds to public schools but intended to leave it to the Legislature to land on a number for the increase. In the past, Dunleavy — who last year won a second, four-year term — has resisted raising school funding without tying an increase to new requirements for schools to improve student outcomes in skills like reading and math.
Still, Story said that she is encouraged by Dunleavy’s willingness to work with the Legislature on the issue, and Tobin said she is “emboldened” by Dunleavy’s recognition that policymaking should be left to the Legislature. But the details of that policymaking process are still undetermined.
A 15% increase?
Without an increase to the Base Student Allocation, districts are enacting drastic program cuts and struggling to retain and recruit staff, said Lon Garrison, executive director of the Alaska Association of School Boards.
“As resources become tight, we still have to pay the power bill. Schools have to pay for fuel, transportation, those kinds of things. And so as those costs increase, the ability to keep teachers and paraprofessionals and staff in schools becomes more and more difficult,” he said.
The organization, made up of school board members statewide, is advocating for a minimum increase of $860 to the $5,960 Base Student Allocation — a number put forward by Anchorage School Board members and unanimously supported by the rest of the group, Garrison said. The dollar amount is based on how much the formula would need to make up since 2017, if adjusted for inflation using the Bureau of Labor Statistics consumer price index for urban Alaska.
An $860 boost would account for a nearly 15% one-time increase. Additionally, some lawmakers say they will attempt to pass legislation this year that will tie the calculation to inflation in future years, meaning the formula will be automatically adjusted, year after year.
[As session approaches, Alaska Senate leader aims for consensus and outlines likely priorities]
Tobin, the senator set to lead the discussion on education in her chamber, said that could be a good starting point, but she intends to hear from teachers and administrators in a series of committee meetings before committing to specific legislation.
“At this juncture in time, I’ve heard several numbers tossed around,” Tobin said. “I know that the first few sessions that we have in (the) Senate Education (Committee), we will ask that exact question.”
Tobin and some other lawmakers said they also hope that introducing a more robust retirement system for teachers, referred to as defined benefits, will also help recruit and keep teachers in the state.
There are many things that need to be done to attract and retain teachers, including defined benefit improvements, said Tom Klaameyer, president of the National Education Association of Alaska. At the same time, lack of education funding puts a burden on those who remain in schools.
Overall, the flat funding has caught up with districts, he said.
“Most of school districts’ budgets are people. And so the way they tend to balance the budget is by cutting positions and laying people off, and so we are certainly in crisis mode,” Klaameyer said.
He said the group has strongly advocated for an increase to the per-student funds for years, and added that there needs to be a long-term solution to the funding problem that includes a mechanism to adjust for inflation. An $860 increase would keep up with inflation going back to 2017, but Klaameyer said education funding has lagged behind inflation for the last 12 years.
“In real terms, we’re still behind,” he said.
‘A red line kind of thing’
Rep. Andy Josephson, an Anchorage Democrat, said an increase to the Base Student Allocation could top a set of guiding principles in the House, regardless of who ends up constituting a majority caucus.
“Substantially increasing the BSA is a red line kind of thing for me,” Josephson said. “I treat that as something that, I can’t go home without it.”
But some conservative lawmakers remain skeptical this year of writing a blank check to schools, even as they broadly agree on the importance of at least considering an increase to education funding.
Both Mike Prax and Mike Cronk — Republicans representing North Pole and Tok, respectively, and who served on the House education committee last year — said that the conversation about increasing education funding should also address ways to improve student outcomes, as Alaska students continue to perform poorly in reading and math assessments.
“We just can’t write a blank check and say, ‘Hey, more money fixes the problem,’ because we know that’s a government solution that doesn’t work,” said Cronk, a retired teacher. “More money doesn’t fix the problem. So if we’re gonna give you more money, how are you going to use that extra money to impact our students?”
Daily News reporter Sean Maguire contributed to this story from Juneau.