JUNEAU — The Alaska Senate on Thursday passed a bill to increase public school funding by more than $175 million per year, sending the measure to the House with less than a week to go before the expected end of the legislative session.
The $680 increase to the $5,960 Base Student Allocation — the formula used to calculate state funding for schools — is the single largest increase to public education spending in the state’s history, but it is far less than what school administrations from across the state said would be needed to account for inflation, after years of flat funding from the state.
“The years of flat funding and one-time funding have really eroded the purchasing power of the Base Student Allocation,” said Sen. Löki Tobin, D-Anchorage, who chairs the Senate Education Committee. “When the BSA has its purchasing power eroded, those who get hurt the worst are our kids.”
School administrators told her committee earlier this year that they would need a more than $1,000 formula increase just to keep up with inflation over the course of more than five years without a substantial increase to the formula. But senators said Thursday that the $680 increase could allow some districts to avoid major increases to class sizes or program cuts.
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Since the beginning of the session, Senate majority members have named increasing the Base Student Allocation as their top priority, and on Thursday Sen. Bill Wielechowski, an Anchorage Democrat, called it “a huge step forward,” “a major accomplishment” and “a historic day.”
“This will go a long way towards stabilizing our education funding,” said Wielechowski.
The Senate passed the bill in a 16-3 vote, with only one member of the 17-member bipartisan majority voting against the legislation. Twelve amendments to the bill brought by conservative minority Republicans were swiftly rejected.
“General funding is not the ticket,” said Sen. Shelley Hughes, a Palmer Republican who brought several of the failed amendments, arguing for more targeted spending that could be directed specifically to increase teacher pay or be conditioned on improved student performance.
Two amendments proposed by Hughes that would have targeted transgender students — by banning trans girls from competing in girls’ school sports, banning trans students from using bathrooms according to their gender identity and including some provisions from Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s controversial “parental rights” bill that would limit discussions of gender and sexuality in schools — were ruled “irrelevant” by Senate President Gary Stevens, and not discussed.
“My ‘no’ vote is a signal to the other body,” said Hughes before voting against the broader bill.
In the House, a bill to increase the Base Student Allocation has stalled in the Finance Committee, putting in question whether the legislation can pass the chamber this year. Republican House majority members have said they are opposed to increasing the Base Student Allocation without first reforming the funding formula. Instead, they have indicated they favor a one-time $175 million spending increase, without changing the underlying formula.
Still, supporters of the Senate bill hope it could pass the House this year. Rep. Dan Ortiz, a Ketchikan independent who sponsored the House bill, said the House majority could have “a willingness to look at that.”
“From my conversations, they’re still looking at that, possibly,” said Ortiz.
The Senate Education Committee earlier this year advanced a version of the bill that included a $1,000 increase to the Base Student Allocation and an additional increase the following year, with an eventual funding boost of $346 million annually.
But Senate members said that proved unfeasible given the state’s lower-than-expected revenue, and the funding total was lowered when the bill was considered by the Finance Committee.
Sen. Bert Stedman, a Sitka Republican who co-chairs the Senate Finance Committee, said that the caucus planned to take up the question of school funding again in the next regular legislative session, with additional data from school districts, whether or not the bill passed the full Legislature this year.
“So this is a step in the right direction. If the House doesn’t complete action on the BSA bill this year, we’ll be working on it next year,” he said.
The Senate bill includes several other measures in addition to a Base Student Allocation increase. It would boost student transportation funding by 11% at an annual cost of $7.5 million, and spending on residential schools by 50% at a cost of around $4 million per year. And it would create a data dashboard and new reporting requirements for districts in response to calls from Republicans for added accountability measures to be adopted alongside funding to better address Alaska students’ lagging performance in reading and math assessments.
“We need to look at our schools as a gym membership — you pay your money, and you go in and do the work,” said Sen. Jesse Bjorkman, a Nikiski Republican who works as a public school teacher. “What’s not accountable — what’s passing the buck — is treating public education like a vending machine.”