Alaska Legislature

Alaska House minority bemoans lack of action on school funding. Senate has a plan.

Alaska House minority leaders on Monday publicly called out members of the Republican-dominated majority for dragging their feet on what they see as the state’s top priority for the legislative session: increasing public school funding.

House Minority Leader Calvin Schrage, an Anchorage independent who leads a caucus composed mostly of Democrats, said a majority of House members support an increase to school funding and a revamped public retirement system but “a minority of the majority” is stopping bills from advancing in the Legislature.

House Speaker Cathy Tilton, a Wasilla Republican who leads a majority made up mostly of Republicans, countered that the House is still focused on crafting the state budget, the Legislature’s primary task. Critics of her caucus have pointed out that vast ideological differences between its members have prevented its members from articulating cohesive goals.

A bill to increase the per-student funding formula for public education by $1,250, which would translate to an annual cost increase of $321 million to the state, was presented to the House Education Committee earlier this month, but committee members did not take action on the bill or indicate when action would be taken. That bill was proposed by Rep. Dan Ortiz, an independent from Ketchikan.

“We really haven’t seen the attention that we think that bill deserves,” Schrage told reporters on Tuesday, six weeks into the four-month legislative session.

Schrage and other House minority members said it’s imperative to pass an increase in education funding this year, as schools across the state are forced to cut programs, increase class sizes and reduce staff to meet shrinking budgets. The state’s funding formula has not seen a meaningful increase in several years. Inflation during that time has meant that schools have less money to spend, and with federal pandemic relief funds all used up, educators say a crisis is looming.

But Tilton said the discussion on a possible funding increase is likely to be slow-moving, and predicted that it would take two years to reach agreement.


“I don’t have a crystal ball so I really can’t tell exactly what that will look like but I do think that it is definitely a two-year process,” Tilton said in a brief phone interview on Tuesday.

That scenario is rejected both by members of the House minority and by leaders of the Senate majority, which is comprised of nine Democrats and eight Republicans.

“If I had my druthers, it would be a much higher number than the $1,250 that Rep. Ortiz has proposed because I know that our schools will use these additional resources to do incredible things,” said Sen. Löki Tobin, an Anchorage Democrat who chairs the Senate Education Committee. “However, I understand that the goal is to get something passed this year, and I know that that needs to be a number that folks will agree upon.”

Tobin says she has been working behind the scenes with members of the House and the governor’s administration to reach a consensus. A bill to increase the public school funding formula by $1,000 was introduced in Tobin’s committee earlier in the session but the committee hasn’t voted on it. Tobin says she’s still working to find common ground before introducing a revamped bill that will likely include some new form of new reporting requirements for schools. That new proposal could come next week, Tobin said in an interview on Tuesday.

Both Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy and conservative members of the House have been calling for a funding increase to be tied to increased accountability. Educators have said there are already robust accountability measures in place.

“Accountability is the buzzword. It’s the distraction of the day,” said Rep. Alyse Galvin, an Anchorage independent who belongs to the minority. “So when somebody asked me, ‘Hey, how about that accountability piece?’ I said, ‘Hey, what’s your plan to get our kids reading with less and less and less?’ ”

[Legislators advance policy to limit Alaska’s spending, despite lingering concerns]

A new reading bill that passed last year already has new accountability measures in it, and educators say there are longstanding reporting requirements in place to federal, state and local governments. Tobin said she believes the education system is already “very transparent” and has “high levels of accountability.” But she said the state can collect “high level data” and “help analyze that information to give tools to our local governments to our local school boards.”

Earlier this year, Dunleavy’s office hired former Anchorage schools superintendent Deena Bishop to serve as a special assistant for education issues. Dunleavy spokesman Jeff Turner declined to provide details on what Bishop has been working on and declined to make Bishop available for an interview.

Tobin said Tuesday that Bishop has been helping craft policy to “fulfill the requirements that we know parents and educators and quite frankly school boards want when it comes to being able to access information about what’s happening in their local schools.”

[Lawmakers say a new fiscal cap could stabilize Alaska’s economy. It could also tank it.]

Tilton also said Dunleavy has “an education package that he’ll be putting out in the next few days.” Turner did not respond to questions on the proposed legislation sent by email.

‘Ideologically not consistent’

Tobin said she is following a similar process to the one laid out by her predecessor, former Sen. Tom Begich, an Anchorage Democrat, when he championed in 2022 a reading bill that had Dunleavy’s blessing. That bill passed the Legislature in the final days of the previous session amid opposition from several members of Begich’s own party, creating new reading standards in an effort to improve students’ poor performance in reading assessments. Begich, who was a member of the Senate minority at the time the bill passed, has said the bill was made possible thanks to his work behind the scenes with House leaders and members of Dunleavy’s administration.

Working with the governor and his chief of staff “is critical to ensuring whatever passes isn’t either vetoed or reduced with a line item veto,” Begich said in an interview on Tuesday. Dunleavy in the past has not shied away from vetoing line items in the state budget.

Begich also said the task of passing an education funding bill is made more complicated by the House majority’s diverse viewpoints. The House Education Committee’s two Republican co-chairs — Rep. Justin Ruffridge of Soldotna and Rep. Jamie Allard of Eagle River — have shown diverging interests in leading the committee. Ruffridge has expressed openness to increasing the Base Student Allocation, while Allard has questioned educators on the need for more funding and prioritized hearing for advocates for school choice, who call for taking money from public schools to fund homeschooling and other educational options.

Ruffridge and Allard did not respond to a list of emailed questions on or requests for interviews sent to their offices on Tuesday.

“It’s tricky because we don’t quite fully understand what the House majority’s objectives are. They have talked about ensuring that any increase would have accountability, which is not saying no to an increase,” said Begich.


But that also presents an opportunity, he said. If enough members of the majority join minority members, they can overcome opposition from the “minority of the majority” that Schrage says is holding up progress.

“Because the House majority is ideologically not consistent, it presents an opportunity to move forward a bill that potentially would have the support of the Senate majority and the governor. The math of it is all there,” Begich said. “Instead of dealing with it with a belief that the House is going to approach this in a lockstep manner, you approach it as individual members and with an understanding of where the bulk of decisions are going to be made.”

‘Putting the cart before the horse’

Some Republican House Education Committee members have criticized the foundation of how school funding is calculated. The Base Student Allocation is a complex formula that attempts to account for varying student and school needs. Rather than focusing on the need for a funding increase, committee members like Rep. Mike Prax of North Pole and Rep. Tom McCay of Anchorage have wondered if the formula itself needs to be overhauled.

To that end, Tilton said Allard and Ruffridge announced over the weekend that they would put together a subcommittee of the education committee “which is looking at putting forward a task force to really look at education altogether, not just the BSA as one piece, but the whole umbrella that falls underneath education funding.”

Tobin said she agrees the Alaska education system “could use some reimagining.” But without a funding increase, it would be difficult to improve the system.

“I think they’re putting the cart before the horse, so to speak, in that we can’t reimagine a system if it isn’t well-funded to begin with, that we don’t have the breadth and the ability to be strategic and planful and be innovative, if we’re struggling just to ensure that the rooms are heated and the bellies are full and the kids have shoes on their feet,” said Tobin.

Some elements of how education costs are calculated, including the rising costs of energy and insurance, should be taken into consideration, Tobin said.

“However, we can’t have our educators providing quality feedback if they’re worried about losing half of their staff due to low wages. First we’ve got to right the ship, and then we can talk about how we want the ship to look and where we want to end up going,” she said.


‘Purposefully slow’

Schrage said Tobin’s behind-the-scenes work building consensus on the funding bill could prove effective, but defended his decision to openly criticize the majority for their lack of action.

“I think it’s important for us to be on the record in letting the majority know that this is something that Alaskans are demanding, and they are the ones that have the ability to either address this or stop it,” said Schrage.

Tilton acknowledged that “there is some agreement” within members of her caucus on increasing school funding, but that “agreement would depend on what are the specifics of what a bill ended up looking like.”

“The process itself is slow and purposefully slow so that there is a lot of deliberation,” said Tilton. “It’s important that people look at our finances and where we are right now.”

As she has worked on getting naysayers on board, Tobin said she would not agree to an increase lower than $1,000. Education advocates led by the Alaska school boards association originally asked for a minimum funding increase of $860, but later said that that number, based on 2022 inflation figures, was no longer adequate.

As for the slow pace of movement, Begich said lawmakers know that the funding education increase has “value as a negotiating tool.” Sought-after legislation is often delayed until the final days of the legislative session as a bargaining chip for other priorities.

“The reason it doesn’t have traction in the House is because they’re not in negotiations yet,” said Begich.

Minority members are still frustrated.

“Frankly, I don’t understand that hostage situation and why it’s set up that way in this Legislature,” said Schrage.

Iris Samuels

Iris Samuels is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News focusing on state politics. She previously covered Montana for The AP and Report for America and wrote for the Kodiak Daily Mirror. Contact her at