Alaska’s House Education Committee advanced a bill Wednesday to increase the per-student education funding formula by $800, far below what education advocates say is needed to shore up public schools.
The committee advanced the measure in a 5-2 vote after amending a bill that originally called for a $1,250 increase to the current $5,960 foundation. The committee’s amended bill, which next goes to the House Finance Committee for consideration, would raise the Base Student Allocation by $680 in the coming fiscal year and then an additional $120 in the next fiscal year, which begins in July 2024.
The funding boost would translate to roughly $175 million in additional state spending in the coming fiscal year and $205 million in spending the year after that.
The vote to advance the amended bill came after the House Education Committee heard nearly five hours of public testimony on Tuesday evening — the vast majority of it in favor of significantly increasing state funding for education.
“Since 2012, inflation has increased by at least 24%, while the BSA has increased only 4.2%, so although we have flat funded education in recent years, because of inflation, spending power for education has actually decreased by about 20%,” said Rep. Dan Ortiz, I-Ketchikan, who sponsored the original bill.
Education advocates began the legislative session saying they needed at least $860 added to the Base Student Allocation to keep up with inflation. Within a few weeks they changed their ask, saying that given persistently high inflation, they would need at least $1,000 added to the $5,960 base just to keep up with rising prices.
The Senate Education Committee has separately advanced a bill earlier this month that would increase the Base Student Allocation by $1,000 in the coming fiscal year and an additional $348 the year after that, translating to $257 million in state spending in the coming fiscal year and $346 million in the following year.
But some leaders of the House majority, made up mostly of Republicans, have questioned the need for such a sizable education funding boost and have called for a review of the foundation formula used to derive district funding from the Base Student Allocation.
Wednesday’s vote on the Base Student Allocation revealed a rift between the two Republicans who chair the education committee and a corresponding division within House Republicans. Committee co-chair Jamie Allard of Eagle River voted against the $800 increase, instead favoring a much more modest $150 boost. Co-chair Justin Ruffridge of Soldotna was the only committee Republican to vote against the $150 boost — instead proposing the $800 increase, which he called “a middle ground approach.”
Rep. Tom McKay, R-Anchorage, who proposed the $150 boost as an amendment to Ortiz’s bill, said the dozens of teachers and administrators who testified in favor of the larger funding increase “make their living off the BSA, so it’s not necessarily true that we were receiving public testimony.”
McKay’s amendment was supported by Allard and Rep. Mike Prax, R-North Pole. It failed to pass in a 4-3 vote, with opposition from Ruffridge, along with Democrats CJ McCormick of Bethel and Andi Story of Juneau, and independent Rebecca Himschoot of Sitka.
“My feeling is the foundation formula black box needs to be reformed before we add more funding,” said McKay, arguing that the money should be tied to accountability measures such as student test scores. “It doesn’t put the money where we need it to go.”
Speaking against McKay’s amendment, Ruffridge said he is concerned about the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, in his home district, signaling it would increase class sizes without a sufficient funding boost. Growing class sizes — by reducing the number of teachers each district hires — has become a prevalent method in the state’s urban districts to deal with stagnant funding, including in Anchorage.
“Altering the foundation formula does not necessarily alter the amount of money that a school district needs in order to function,” said Ruffridge. “I think the problem still remains that we have a funding issue within our school districts.”
‘From Bethel to the Yukon on a quarter tank of gas’
Ruffridge went on to ask for an amendment to Ortiz’s bill to reduce the Base Student Allocation increase by nearly half in the coming year — from $1,250 to $680. His amendment called for the Base Student Allocation to then be increased to $800 in 2024. The committee’s two Democrats and one independent member all said they would vote for that change to ensure the bill passed out of the committee, even though they supported a much larger increase.
Ruffridge reasoned that the $680 boost is the one the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District needs to avoid increasing class sizes and closing theaters and swimming pools. Ortiz, the sponsor of the original bill, urged Ruffridge to look beyond his region.
“We don’t just represent our own districts. We have needs that are greater than that in some areas of our state,” said Ortiz.
McCormick, the Bethel Democrat, said that the lower number proposed by Ruffridge would not meet the basic needs of the schools in his mostly rural Western Alaska district, which have indicated they need at least a $1,000 increase. While urban schools have proposed reducing class sizes and cutting special programs to account for lower buying power, administrators from rural districts have said they can hardly afford to keep buildings warm and teachers housed amid rising costs.
“If this is the only way forward, I understand that, but — to use an analogy, I feel like I’m being asked to drive from Bethel to the Yukon on a quarter tank of gas,” said McCormick, one of two rural Democrats who are members of the House majority.
Ultimately, McCormick, Story and Himschoot all voted in favor of Ruffridge’s proposal, while expressing hope that the bill would be amended in the future to return to a higher funding increase.
“I’m not in love with this but I’m happy to get it moving,” said Himschoot. “Our job is to get this to Finance, and I’m counting on Finance to give this a good look.”
McCormick said he was glad to see the bill advance but “very disappointed” by the reduced number. He concluded the meeting by pulling out his high school yearbook from 2015, the year he graduated and one year before the Base Student Allocation saw its last major increase.
“A lot of the staff members that are in this yearbook, a lot of the folks that helped me get through school, helped me get here, they’re not at (Bethel Regional High School) anymore,” said McCormick. “That’s really a reflection of the current state of our schools and the fact that we’re not getting the resources necessary to our teachers. So this really hits home for me.”
The bill advanced with only Allard and McKay opposing. Prax voted in favor of the bill and later said “it wasn’t as bad as whatever it was proposed to be.”
‘Move that needle back and forth’
Proponents of the larger Base Student Allocation increase say that if the bill reaches the House floor, there are likely enough votes for it to pass when combining more moderate Republicans with Democrats and independent lawmakers. But it must first be reviewed and voted on by the House Finance Committee, which earlier this week adopted an operating budget that did not include a school funding increase, even as it would require the state to draw hundreds of millions of dollars from savings to cover a $2,700 Permanent Fund dividend per eligible Alaskan.
Sen. Löki Tobin, D-Anchorage, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said Wednesday she was “very excited” to see the bill pass out of the House committee in a 5-2 vote, with two Republicans in favor of it, despite the fact that the Base Student Allocation boost was set far below what’s favored by the Senate majority.
“I think not many of us were anticipating (that vote),” said Tobin, crediting that outcome to the overwhelming calls from teachers, students and teachers for a funding increase.
“This is a conversation we’re going to continue to have with our school districts about how we get to yes with everyone, and that might mean we have to move that needle back and forth a little bit to figure out what the right placement is going to be,” she said.
Lawmakers acknowledged Wednesday that a revenue forecast released by state analysts the previous day — which showed the state bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars less than previously projected — would inevitably become part of the conversation about education funding.
“Ultimately, when you’re talking about foundation funding programs and things like that, you can’t base it on a spring forecast, you can’t base it on a fall forecast. Because the idea is — are you going to sustainably fund education or are you not?” said Ortiz.