JUNEAU — The House committee tasked with addressing Alaska’s long-term fiscal plan has yet to advance any of the dozen bills referred to it that would levy new taxes or change the structure of the Permanent Fund dividend.
But with less than two weeks to go until the end of the legislative session, the committee on Thursday advanced a bill that would increase annual spending on home-schooled students by millions of dollars.
House Bill 165 would raise the amount of funding per home-schooled child from roughly $5,300 to more than $7,000, and require that money be sent directly to the parents of home-schooled children, rather than funneled to the correspondence programs that oversee those students. Under existing law, those programs can keep some of that funding in order to cover the cost of meeting state-mandated requirements associated with participating in correspondence programs.
The bill passed out of the Ways and Means Committee in a 5-2 vote, with all Republicans in favor and the two minority Democrats opposed. It remains unlikely the bill will advance any further this session, amid opposition from the Senate and the House minority.
“Everybody is really struggling across the state, so our Ways and Means Committee decides to hear HB 165 to give more money to home-school programs,” said Rep. Rebecca Himschoot, a Sitka independent who sits on the Education Committee. “So we’re not interested in a funding solution for all of our schools — only some of our schools, and that’s where I draw the line.”
The bill was first heard in the House Ways and Means Committee the same day that Gov. Mike Dunleavy convened a press conference to underscore the importance of the Legislature’s work on a fiscal plan that would generate new revenue and resolve a longstanding structural deficit. House Speaker Cathy Tilton said the House’s plan would come out of work done by the House Ways and Means Committee.
The committee has yet to advance any bills that would change the state’s tax structure or Permanent Fund dividend calculation. Republicans on the committee who support the home-schooling bill say it could save the state money by diverting funds from Alaska’s brick-and-mortar schools, which serve more than 80% of the state’s students.
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Tilton, a Wasilla Republican who sits on the committee, said the bill was part of fiscal plan discussions because education helps “to grow the economy in the big picture.”
The bill appeared to be a product of the conservative advocacy group Alaska Policy Forum. When lawmakers had questions about the bill during two committee hearings, the questions were often directed to an Alaska Policy Forum staff member rather than legislative aides. A presentation on the bill made by legislative aides prominently displayed the forum’s logo. Alaska Policy Forum staff members did not respond to interview requests sent by phone and email.
The Alaska Policy Forum has long questioned funding increases for Alaska’s public education system, using figures and data that schools have called inaccurate, to make claims that schools overspend on administrative costs and hoard unspent funds. School administrators have repeatedly told lawmakers that such claims are misleading or false.
Alaska’s school districts this year have called for a significant increase in state funding. Without it, school administrators say they will be forced to cut teachers and programs, after years of flat funding amid record inflation. But bills to increase the Base Student Allocation, the formula used to calculate state funding per district, have stalled in both the House and Senate finance committees, and time is running out to advance them before the session ends.
Both chambers have conceded that they could add funding for schools outside the formula, but districts have long said such funding — while helpful — does not address some of their key challenges, including recruiting and retaining teachers.
“We all know that this is part of the end negotiation,” Senate Education Committee Chair Löki Tobin, D-Anchorage, said Thursday. “I think we’re going to get money into schools. How it gets in there is still up for consideration.”
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Lawmakers have rejected school administrators’ request to increase the $5,930 Base Student Allocation by no less than $860, which would raise state spending on schools by around $220 million per year, instead favoring a $175 million one-time increase.
In the meantime, Republicans on the Ways and Means Committee said they would support a bill that could add more than $50 million in spending directed to the state’s roughly 21,000 home-schoolers, who make up around 16% of K-12 students in Alaska.
The bill was championed by Ways and Means Committee Chair Rep. Ben Carpenter, R-Nikiski, and Education Committee Co-Chair Rep. Jamie Allard. Both of them have home-schooled their children. They argued that the bill could end up saving money for the state — despite the projected price tag calculated by state analysts — if thousands of additional students switch from in-person schools to correspondence programs, because home-schooled students are allotted less money per-capita than students at traditional in-person schools.
“When you run the numbers, you recognize that if the schooling system was to move that direction, it’s actually a cost savings to state government to do that, and your outcomes, because your parents are more involved with the kids’ education, are better outcomes in general than in the traditional setting,” said Carpenter.
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Opponents of the measure pointed out that while the bill could cause more public funding to be diverted away from public schools, it would not make running those in-person schools — which are mandated by the state constitution — any less expensive.
“You’d have these kids who would have been in the school and they aren’t there anymore, and that money leaves, but the school needs to pay for the lights to be on, it still has to pay for the cafeteria workers, it still has to pay for the bus drivers, it still has to pay for the custodians, it still has to pay for the upkeep of the building. The teachers may have less students in their class, but those teachers would still need to be there,” said Rep. Andrew Gray, an Anchorage Democrat who sits on the Ways and Means Committee.
Opponents also said that home-schooling is not a good fit for many families in the state — including immigrants, people for whom English in not a primary language, parents who work full-time and parents who think that certified and experienced teachers may be better educators than they could be.
“The message that I think we’re sending is that all kids would do better if their parents — who don’t have teaching credentials and have never taught a child before — stayed home and taught,” said Gray.
Under the bill, new home-schooling spending would be sent directly to families for student allotments, “not on administering the school district’s correspondence program.”
That would “potentially financially destroy all statewide correspondence programs,” according to a letter from the Craig City School District Superintendent Chris Reitan, who said the bill would leave no money for state-mandated individual learning plans and other required services for students enrolled in correspondence programs.
The bill also creates new accounting and reporting mandates — requiring correspondence programs to provide an annual report on the way their money is spent. It does not provide any funding to pay for the additional administrative costs.
“I want to know that that parent used that money for the education of their children, not for trips to Disneyland, not for cars, not for down payments on houses. Because I do think that you’ve got that much money going out to that many different people — that there’s a very good chance that some folks would not be using the money for what it was intended,” said Gray.
The bill heads next to the House Education Committee, which has yet to schedule it for a vote. If it passes out of that committee, it would have to be vetted by the House Finance Committee before it could be voted on by the entire House.
Tobin, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, has already signaled her opposition to the bill, questioning whether it could violate the state’s constitution, which says that “no money shall be paid from public funds for the direct benefit of any religious or other private education institution.”
“I am not interested in challenging our constitution or getting into lawsuits about an illegal system to circumventing or getting away from actually fulfilling our constitutional obligation,” said Tobin, adding that she sees “a very concerted effort to defund particular structures and to make them less accessible to families so that they have limited options.”
Lon Garrison, executive director of the Alaska Association of School Boards, also said he is “very concerned” about the potential constitutional violations that could arise from the bill.
“It does begin to open the door to what eventually could be education savings accounts and vouchers in a different way. Is that constitutionally viable? At this point, I don’t think it is,” said Garrison.
Despite its slim odds of passage, House Republicans’ focus on a controversial education funding measure at a time when the Legislature has stalled on advancing a boost for all schools has angered some.
“Anything that we’re changing in education right now that doesn’t first or alongside a BSA increase improve education for all students, to me, is an inappropriate measure,” said Himschoot, a longtime public school teacher.
During the hearing Thursday evening, Rep. Kevin McCabe, R-Big Lake, responded to the criticism levied against the Ways and Means Committee.
“Why would you ever push back against something that’s good for kids? I thought that we are here for kids, not for schools,” McCabe said before voting in favor of the bill. “I see a lot of pushback from folks, because they don’t think that we should be hearing this. But I think that the entire Legislature, regardless of whether it’s Finance or Ways and Means, should be concerned with the education of our kids.”