The Senate Education Committee introduced a bill Wednesday that would increase Alaska’s per-student funding formula by $1,000, in its response to what Senate President Gary Stevens called an education spending crisis.
That sum would amount to an increase of nearly 17% over the current $5,960 per-student funding formula for the fiscal year beginning in July. It would translate to a cost of more than $257 million in annual state spending, according to analysis by the nonpartisan Legislative Finance Division.
Education advocates who support the increase say it is necessary to address years of stagnant education spending that has not kept up with inflation, leaving districts struggling to keep up with rising costs. Conservative legislators and right-wing advocacy groups have been more skeptical about the prospect of increased funding translating to an improvement to Alaska’s lagging student outcomes.
The Senate’s bill was introduced after the Education Committee heard educators, administrators and parents speak about the challenges they face as a result of more than a decade of little or no increases to public school funding. The Base Student Allocation, or BSA, remained unchanged at $5,930 between 2017 and 2022. Even before that, increases to the funding formula did not match increases to the Alaska Consumer Price Index. The per-student amount remained at $5,680 between 2011 and 2014.
“We arrived at this number because we want to take a bold approach,” said Sen. Löki Tobin, D-Anchorage, who chairs the education committee, in a news conference on Wednesday. In the weeks leading up to the bill’s release, education advocates had been calling for an increase of no less than $860 to the formula, which would account just for inflation between 2017 and 2022.
“We didn’t want to just help stop the bleeding. We wanted to actually put resources into our schools,” Tobin said.
As for how the state will pay for the funding increase, Sitka Republican Sen. Bert Stedman, co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee, framed it as a question that will come down to the size of the Permanent Fund dividend.
Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s budget proposal called for a full statutory dividend of nearly $4,000 at a cost of $2.5 billion, and no increase to school funding. Stedman said that by reducing the dividend to $1,300, the state could cover the education budget boost, all municipal bond debt and the projected $300 million budget shortfall that was part of Dunleavy’s plan.
“That’s the magnitude of what we have to give and take when we decide what we’re going to actually fund,” said Stedman.
Dunleavy spokesman Jeff Turner said in an email Wednesday that Dunleavy “acknowledges that an increase in education funding this year is appropriate.” But he did not specify a funding increase the governor might support.
“He looks forward to having meaningful discussions with lawmakers this session on increasing school funding with accountability measures that demonstrate increased funding leads to improved student outcomes,” Turner wrote.
Tobin called education funding “a chief priority” of the bipartisan Senate majority. “That is a multitude of pieces. It’s not just the Base Student Allocation. It’s also talking about retirement and health care and pupil transport,” she said. But the approach she described as “bold” was not as much as some are now calling for.
A Legislative Finance Division memo released earlier this week showed that by some metrics, accounting for inflation in the past decade would mean raising the formula by more than $1,200. Tobin said that other funding forms, like increasing the student transportation formula that has not changed in recent years, could offset some of the costs that districts currently need to cover using the Base Student Allocation.
At a Senate Education Committee hearing Wednesday, Alexei Painter, director of the Legislative Finance Division, said once one-time funding was factored in, the BSA would need to be increased by $1,348 to match 2015 spending and the impacts of rising prices.
“This is the beginning of the beginning,” Senate President Gary Stevens said about the Senate’s bill. “It has a very long way to go. It’s a start.”
In the House, the school funding crisis has received less attention from the mostly Republican majority. When House majority members have talked about it, they have indicated they would support stipulating funding increases on improving student performance. Alaska students regularly rank in the bottom of the nation in reading and math assessments.
“Any BSA increase that we’re going to talk about in the House is going to be talked about along with accountability measures as well as attaching it to potential targeted types of funding,” said Rep. Justin Ruffridge, a Soldotna Republican who co-chairs the House Education Committee, which has not yet met this year. But, he added that “nothing is a non-starter” in the House.
“The caucus doesn’t have — we’ve not established any particular numbers,” said Ruffridge, who has previously said he’d support a starting point on an education increase anywhere between $250 and $750. “Where we start on the House side is still going to be a debated topic and I wouldn’t be able to comment on what that number would be.”
While the vast majority of those who have testified before the Senate Education Committee have asked for more funding, some have asked for a different approach. “We need a paradigm shift,” said David Boyle, former executive director of the Alaska Policy Forum, a conservative advocacy group that supports using public funds for private schools. Boyle argued that more accountability was needed on spending at the district level.
“Bottom line, the Legislature may increase K-12 funding, but will that increase student achievement?” Boyle asked. “That is what we all should be focusing on.”
Testifiers from across Alaska said the results of flat funding have been far-reaching and have hit rural and urban districts differently. In urban districts, they have led to conversations about closing schools, increasing class sizes and cutting staff positions. In rural Alaska, the funding shortage has exacerbated challenges in keeping up with building maintenance and attracting educators to remote regions.
Amy Brower, superintendent of the Dillingham City School District, described having to sleep in a school building for five weeks after she was hired for the job in July, with no access to hot water, because she could not find housing in the community. Nine other teachers had to do the same, she told the Senate Education Committee in a hearing on Monday, and that is one of the factors causing educators to leave rural Alaska “in droves.”
“Living in a classroom, sleeping on an air mattress, with nowhere to relax, affects teachers’ and administrators’ ability to provide high-quality education to students,” Brower said.
High turnover among teachers has led the district to hire educators with emergency certifications, Brower said, meaning the teachers have not completed all of the requirements typically needed to get certified.
“I’m surprised the state has not been sued because we don’t have enough resources to meet the needs of students in our special needs programs,” Jessica Cobely, a math and science teacher in Juneau, told the Senate Education Committee on Monday. “I think those are the things that are in your future if we don’t find a solution now.”
Nathan Erfurth, president of the Kenai Peninsula Education Association, said the district is already failing to meet its potential because of stagnant funding.
“For those out there arguing that we should see better test results before we invest in education more — the last time your car came to a hill, do you hit the gas to get over it? Or did you bitterly refuse to give it more until it went faster up the hill all on its own? Let’s get over the hill,” Erfurth said.
The Senate’s new school funding bill is set to get its first committee hearing next week.
Sean Maguire reported from Juneau and Iris Samuels reported from Anchorage.