The Senate Education Committee on Monday advanced a bill to increase state funding for public schools, clearing the bill’s first legislative hurdle.
The bill to increase the Base Student Allocation, the foundation formula used to calculate school funding, heads next to the Senate Finance Committee.
The Senate bipartisan majority has named increasing public school funding as one of their top goals for the legislative session, and the measure has support from a broad coalition of education advocacy groups who are warning that districts will be forced to close schools or cut programs without a sizable boost to state funding.
Senate Education Committee Chair Sen. Löki Tobin, D-Anchorage, has said she worked with members of the governor’s administration and the Alaska House to build support for the policy before advancing it out of her committee. However, a controversial education policy proposed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy earlier this month has been called a “distraction” by advocates of a school funding increase, who worry the governor’s proposal could take the focus away from the looming budget crisis many school districts have forecast.
Even if the Senate bill clears the remaining hurdles in that chamber — as it is expected to do — it faces pushback from some members of the mostly Republican House majority, who have questioned the validity of the years-old formula used to calculate public school funding and have shown more openness to Dunleavy’s policy proposals.
The Senate’s bill would increase the Base Student Allocation by $1,000 in the coming fiscal year, which would translate to an increase of $257 million in state spending on K-12 education. The bill would increase funding by an additional $348 the following year, translating to an additional boost of $89 million in state spending. The measure would also create new reporting requirements for school districts, which Tobin has said could make the bill more palatable to Dunleavy and conservative House members who have pushed for increased accountability measures for school districts.
Meanwhile, the House Education Committee held initial hearings Monday on two separate bills proposed by Dunleavy — one that he described as a “parental rights” measure, which would limit sexual education, and another that would provide annual pay bonuses to teachers.
Both bills were presented to the committee by Susan McKenzie, who currently is the director of innovation and education excellence for the state’s education department, and is set to assume the role of education commissioner April 1.
McKenzie said the “parental rights” bill was part of the department’s effort to “improve the safety and well-being of students” by strengthening “the partnership between parents and schools by meaningful notice and consent requirements.”
The bill is reminiscent of other measures proposed in Republican-controlled states, including Florida. It would ban sexual education for kids until fourth grade; require parents to actively opt into all sexual education content for their children once it’s available; require children to use bathrooms according to their “biological sex”; require parental approval for kids to change the name or pronouns they use in school; and order schools to notify parents about their rights to sue their kids’ schools if their rights are violated.
The committee heard testimony from two invited speakers, both retired teachers. Kristine Gugel, one of the retired educators who supports the measure said parents “have a God-given responsibility for the moral, spiritual, sexual, medical condition of their children” and that “these things are not the purview of public education.” Gugel is associated with Wellspring Ministries, a religious organization that in the past opposed an Anchorage ban on the practice of trying to change minors’ sexual orientation.
Alaska AFL-CIO President Joelle Hall, representing the state’s largest labor organization, said in a statement that Dunleavy’s “so-called education bills” are “both an attack on our children and the teachers who are committed to providing a safe environment to our students.”
Lisa Parady, director of the Alaska Council of School Administrators, said the governor’s sexual education bill “seems to really strip away local control and the local school districts’ ability to govern themselves” and that “this seems to be more of an Outside national response to issues that we’re not necessarily seeing problems with.”
Parady expressed more openness to the governor’s teacher bonus bill, which would offer teachers annual pay boosts ranging from $5,000 to $15,000 per teacher, depending on where in Alaska they teach, for a three-year period. But Parady and other education advocates said that it could not come instead of an increase to the Base Student Allocation.
“Our whole approach is that it would have to be in addition to — not in lieu of — the increase to the BSA,” Parady said.
The House Education committee, which is co-chaired by Rep. Jamie Allard, R-Eagle River, and Rep. Justin Ruffridge, R-Soldotna, had not scheduled a time to hear public testimony on the governor’s proposals as of Monday. The committee did not take immediate action on the bills. It also hasn’t taken action on a separate bill proposed by Rep. Dan Ortiz, I-Ketchikan, to increase the Base Student Allocation by $1,250.