While I look for common ground with our governor -- like building a large diameter gas pipeline to bring our natural gas to market -- I do disagree with him on educational policy. Recently during a House Finance Committee hearing on the University of Alaska, we learned that Alaska ranks last in the nation in college attendance and graduation. So what's the governor's plan to address this? Well, he has declined the Board of Regents' request for funds to provide courses in high demand job areas for which, because we don't train enough Alaskans, employers have to bring in workers from out of state. That's bad for the economy, and bad for Alaskans who want to remain in this state. Some high demand areas are engineering, rural teaching, nursing, physical therapy and a few others. We should train Alaskans when there are jobs waiting for them in this state. And I hope to work to reverse both this cut to the Board of Regents' proposal, and his cut to an effort to raise university academic achievement with needed student advisors -- a proposal that will work, and help get us out of one of those last in the nation rankings.
Likewise, I am frustrated with the governor's proposal to effectively cut K-12 education funding by leaving it at the same level it was two years ago. He's recognized every one of his agencies need funds to cover the cost of inflation ... except education. While every state agency has been given an inflation cost increase by the governor in his proposed budget, he's refused to allow for an inflation cost increase for school funding. Instead he's funding our per-student formula at the same level as two years ago. That will lead to increased failure and less success for the next generation.
Freezing school funding to 2010 levels, without recognizing costs have gone up with inflation, translates into a major education cut. The proof's in the pudding. It is causing schools across the state to plan for layoffs and the end of courses and summer school. The bottom line is that the governor has granted state employees and bureaucrats inflation increases -- just not kids. The governor's salary and benefit increases for those agencies total roughly $45 million.
Alaska funds its schools by granting a certain number of dollars per student under what's called the base student allocation. Two years ago that amount was $5,680 per student. It remains the same under Governor Parnell's budget this year. Combined inflation of roughly 5 percent in the years since the last funding adjustment has led to significant cut to school budgets.
The governor has tried to shift the focus to other funds the Legislature put into schools starting around 2008, most of which the Legislature appropriated to make up for past inequities in rural and special needs education funding. While those funds helped rural schools and special education students, they too are being eaten away by inflation under the governor's recent budgets and current proposal. Even with the money the governor is referencing from the Legislature's 2008 plan, non-special education students in urban districts will receive no more funding under the governor's proposal than they did two years ago. Likewise, the Legislature wisely took a good step starting in fiscal year 2008, and offered help to local school districts to pay for the multi-billion school district retirement system debt. That funding formula also has not changed since 2008.
So, while the governor has been taking credit for decisions the legislature made years ago, the fact is that he is proposing a per-student funding level for next year that ignores the rising costs of providing education, and is frozen at the same level it was two years ago. Even one-time "fuel cost" funding added by the Legislature last year to help schools has been left out of the governor's budget this year. As a result, Fairbanks, Juneau, and Anchorage school districts have announced major staffing cuts under the based on the governor's proposed budget, and in Anchorage, officials are faced with the prospect of closing summer school for students who need the extra help to succeed. I along with Democratic Representatives Tuck, Kawasaki, Kerttula, and Gardner are co-sponsors of Rep. Petersen's HB 143 to hold schools harmless from inflation. Alaska's students should be given the tools to prosper. We shouldn't be, instead, taking them away.
Les Gara, a Democratic state representative for Anchorage's 23rd District, was born in New York and came to Alaska in 1988 fresh from Harvard Law School to clerk for Alaska Supreme Court Justice Jay Rabinowitz. He was a state assistant Attorney General before entering private practice. Since 2003, he has served as a state representative. He has won a "Defender of Democracy Award" for his efforts to open government meetings and limit the influence of money and lobbying in politics.
The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Alaska Dispatch welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.