If there’s one thing nearly all Alaska legislators and Gov. Mike Dunleavy can agree on this legislative session, it’s that Alaska’s public education system needs attention — and funding — if the state is to improve on a host of priorities, from student achievement to teacher retention. But, as is typical for issues like education, where so much is riding on the outcome, the devil is in the details. Legislators have organized an ad hoc conference committee of sorts to try and hammer out an education funding deal that a solid majority of the House and Senate can support and that the governor will sign. So what are the issues at play, and how likely are we to see lawmakers find common ground?
Nearly everyone agrees: Alaska has a problem attracting and keeping new teachers. Per the Alaska Department of Labor, Alaska’s teachers were once the best compensated in the U.S., but in recent years their pay has regressed toward the mean, falling from 170% of the national average in 1980 to 111% today. There is no question that constant teacher turnover or vacant positions is making it tougher for our students to succeed. Similar to the private sector, teachers compensation is broken into two large buckets: the wages they earn on one hand and the ancillary benefits they accrue on the other. So far, the decision-makers in Juneau haven’t agreed on which bucket deserves more consideration as total compensation is increased.
Dunleavy has proposed, as he did last year, a bonus incentive program for teachers intended to help stem turnover, particularly in rural districts. This would be a one-time cash payment to teachers. It’s not a bad idea — when did more pay ever fail to increase job satisfaction or attract new job-seekers? But some worry that a bonus program might violate the Alaska Constitution’s equal protection doctrine or districts’ collective bargaining agreements, as legislative attorneys have warned may be the case. If it’s legal, a cash bonus to teachers would be a great incentive to move to or stay in Alaska for a teaching career, particularly for younger teachers saving to pay off student debt or for a down payment on a home. Dunleavy’s bonus plan should be included in the final package.
On the benefits side, teachers unions are seeking a return to defined-benefit retirement after 18 years of 401k-style plans common in the private sector. The current system has the feature of being extremely portable — but public-sector unions argue that has been a fundamental reason why the state has had trouble with employee retention, as they have little inducement to stay if offered a higher-paying position elsewhere. But, as Sen. Bert Stedman has pointed out, the question should not be whether people want to return to a defined-benefit system but what the state can afford. The reason for the abandonment of the former defined-benefit plan was the massive financial hole it dug for the state because of its too-generous compensation rates, especially for Tier I employees (whose ranks, it should be noted, include Dunleavy and more than a few legislators). When the state guarantees pension payments to employees, we’re asking all Alaskans to shoulder the risk that the financial markets could go down. Twenty years ago, that was the case, which is why the state wisely moved away from that style of savings plan. Making payments to teachers directly allows them to spend or save funds at their discretion, based on what makes the most sense for them and their families and it ensures that we don’t return to a system that exposes future generations to the same kinds of massive unfunded liability that arose in the early 2000s.
Base Student Allocation increases
In contrast to paying teachers directly, increasing the Base Student Allocation effectively sends funds to local school districts which they can also use to fund all of the other expenses related to education including building maintenance, utilities and paying support staff like administrators and janitors. It’s undeniable that the past seven years without a BSA increase have led to substantial erosion of the real-dollar funding amount because of inflation since it was last increased. But simply rubber-stamping a large BSA increase doesn’t make sense — Dunleavy and like-minded legislators rightly mistrust school districts’ tendency to grow administration with money meant for the classroom. They point to the fact that student enrollment has declined over the years but school district spending declines haven’t kept pace. That’s why the education bill awaiting passage in the House has a BSA increase of only $300 — more would risk votes of Republican legislators whose votes are needed for passage. But it’s similarly unlikely that the Senate majority will agree to a $300 increase, seeking a higher number. Striking a balance between paying teachers directly and increasing the BSA is ultimately a philosophical expression of where we should be focusing our resources — in the classroom where it will have the most impact on student outcomes, or under-utilized facilities, support staff and district administrators. While a moderate BSA increase is warranted, the Dunleavy approach of weighting that support to classroom instruction is the more responsible path.
Dunleavy has been extremely bullish on Alaska’s charter schools, and for good reason. A Harvard study ranked Alaska’s charter schools tops in the nation, and while that study’s author cautioned that it didn’t investigate the particular reasons why Alaska ranked so high, it’s clear that charter schools here are working well and deserve focus and expansion, as they’re offering high-quality education and valuable options to students and parents. The study also noted that students from disadvantaged backgrounds who attend charter schools also outperform their peers at non-charter schools. The evidence on the ground is also clear: Charter schools around the state maintain healthy waitlists of families who are voting for more school choice with their feet. When a group of parents and students coalesce around an educational philosophy — as happens in our unique charter schools — we see more engagement, involvement and satisfaction, and ultimately better student performance. Charter schools are working and we should make it easier for them to be born around the state. To the extent that we can expand school choices for parents while maintaining strong neighborhood schools, why wouldn’t we want to do so?
Legislators have their work cut out for them in bridging the divides between the Senate and the House majorities on these priorities, so it’s a good thing they’re getting down to that work early in the session. It’s also important to finally hear from the governor on his specific priorities as ultimately his signature will be required to pass any legislation. All of us have a stake in the success of Alaska’s schools but as always, resources are limited meaning tough choices are ahead. The time has come to substantially increase education funding, there is no doubt. We owe it to our children. But how we do that matters. Alaskans should contact their legislators and let them know which of these priorities they support.