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Alaska Legislature

Seeking to prevent teacher layoffs, Alaska House votes to pay for public schools through 2023

The Alaska and national flags fly at half-mast on Tuesday, April 6, 2021 in front of the Alaska State Capitol in Juneau. (James Brooks / ADN)

JUNEAU — In an attempt to prevent Alaska school districts from temporarily laying off teachers, the state House of Representatives on Thursday approved two years’ worth of public school funding.

The education bill, which passed 26-14 against opposition from the House’s Republican minority, now goes to the Senate for consideration.

Senate President Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, and Senate Finance Committee chairman Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, said in separate interviews that federal coronavirus aid means immediate action is not needed. Micciche said he has not yet heard from the Senate majority on the issue, but he and Stedman said they want to see school funding considered as part of a statewide budget bill.

But in extensive public debate on Thursday, House lawmakers said they want to avoid any kind of timing problem. Some local school districts must approve their budgets by mid-May, but lawmakers don’t expect to finish work on the state’s operating budget until May 19, the last day of the Legislature’s regular session.

“We’re trying to prevent a crisis before it happens,” said Rep. Ivy Spohnholz, D-Anchorage.

In Alaska, most public school funding comes from the state. In previous years, late-running budget work forced local districts to budget based on a worst-case scenario. Those austere budgets caused districts to temporarily lay off teachers. While most of those teachers were eventually rehired, the layoffs discouraged them from sticking around, increasing turnover and worsening student performance.

Thursday’s action is intended to keep school funding flat through 2023 — districts would receive only the funding called for under a formula in state law. There would be no increases or cuts.

The proposal originally included just one year of funding and was drafted by the House Finance Committee with broad support. On Wednesday, Rep. Sara Rasmussen, R-Anchorage, led a successful effort to amend the bill and add a second year of funding.

Rasmussen said she has a 5-year-old son and a 3-year-old daughter. Her son is about to enter public school, she said.

“I don’t want his teacher to get a pink slip and be distracted and provide anything less than the best education she can provide,” Rasmussen said.

All of the House’s Democrats and independents supported the bill. Opposition came from members of the House Republican minority, some of whom said they could support a budget that included one year of funding, but not two.

Rep. Ben Carpenter, R-Nikiski, a member of the House Finance Committee, said that given the way school enrollments have shifted during the COVID-19 pandemic, it doesn’t make sense to budget for next year, given that public schools’ formula-determined budgets could change significantly.

“It’s a number that we will learn later, and it’s a number that’s going to come from the general fund,” he said.

But that feeling was not universal among minority Republicans. Rep. Mike Cronk, R-Tok, is a former schoolteacher and school board member. He said he remembers coming to the state Capitol before his election in 2020 and lobbying lawmakers for stable funding.

“I saw way too many of our good teachers leave,” he said. “When you’re in a small community, that is very hard to get — having the consistency of teachers that actually want to stay and live there.”

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