A day after lawmakers formed a small negotiating team to hammer out a deal on a fraught education funding package, Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy convened a rare news conference to urge swift passage of a deal that would include a three-year teacher bonus plan and a provision to pave the way for more charter schools in Alaska.
Dunleavy spent a portion of his hourlong news conference on Wednesday bemoaning the lack of interest from some legislators in his plan to expand Alaska’s charter schools, referring to the Legislature as “a petri dish of sometimes bizarre conspiracy theories.”
Still, Dunleavy applauded legislators for working on an education package that he hopes will include some of his priorities.
“You’ll never get educational reform in the state unless you come up with some multi-approach like we’re doing with this bill,” Dunleavy said. “Why do I say that? Because Alaska is not a far ... an exclusive Republican state in the Legislature. It’s not exclusively Democratic. It’s in the middle. So there are some folks that could stop this from happening or stop that from happening unless we get in the bill the parts and especially the reforms and the money to run schools.”
Watch Dunleavy’s news conference:
A six-member legislative negotiating team began closed-door discussions on Tuesday and held its second meeting on Thursday. Its members include Democratic Sens. Bill Wielechowski, Löki Tobin and Lyman Hoffman, and Republican Reps. Craig Johnson, Jesse Sumner and Jamie Allard.
The Democrat-dominated 16-member House minority caucus does not have a seat at the table, and neither do Bush Caucus members of the House majority, who represent rural Alaska — without whose support the majority will likely fail to advance its priorities.
Rep. Bryce Edgmon, a veteran Dillingham independent and one of three non-Republican members of the House majority, last month said he was “not optimistic” that an education package like the one crafted by his Republican colleagues could pass through the Legislature. He said Thursday that school districts need a bigger funding boost than what is currently “politically tenable” in the state Capitol.
Tobin, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said she anticipated any agreement would have to include a $680 increase to the $5,960 Base Student Allocation, or BSA — at a cost of roughly $175 million per year. Without such a boost, she said “it will be very hard to get past the finish line.”
That’s a far cry from the $1,413 boost educators say is needed to keep the BSA — used to calculate per-school funding from the state — in line with inflation. Education advocates have turned to wearing red buttons with the $1,413 number on their lapels in the Capitol.
“I mean, I can wear a pin too that says ‘give me a million dollars,’” Dunleavy said during his news conference, adding, “You have a fiduciary responsibility to make sure that money is being spent right away. We have a fiduciary responsibility to help people if there’s a problem.”
Dunleavy’s comments drew a long response from Tom Klaameyer, the president of NEA-Alaska, a union representing many of the state’s educators.
“The clear frustration and emotion Gov. Dunleavy expressed during his press conference related to the opposition his education priorities are facing in the Alaska State Legislature is understandable. I too am frustrated, as are thousands of educators, families, and students whose voices continue to be ignored by this administration and some members of the Alaska State House,” Klaameyer wrote in a statement.
One challenge for the ideologically divided House GOP-led majority is that boosting the BSA higher than the $300 increase currently in the package could see some conservative Republicans withdraw their support, threatening the passage of the bill.
Educators from across the state have for years said that what they need to improve lagging student outcomes is a substantial increase in funding that would account for years of high inflation with minimal increases to the formula used to calculate per-school funding.
But Dunleavy on Wednesday spoke dismissively of their calls for a substantial increase to the BSA, instead favoring a package proposed by himself and House Republicans — then tabled in short order because it lacked the votes to pass the chamber.
“Generally I think that the system can be improved. But you’re not going to get there by just saying — ‘Okay, got it. Got the message. Here’s a check for $1.2 billion,’” Dunleavy said.
The package crafted by House Republicans included $77 million in an increase to the per-school BSA formula; $58 million in teacher bonus payments; $40 million for home-schooled students; and a provision meant to increase the number of charter schools in Alaska. But the number of supporters for the bill fell below the threshold for it to pass the chamber.
In the Senate, lawmakers have broadly said they support a bill to increase the BSA without tying it to provisions related to home-schooled students, teacher bonuses, or charter schools. But Dunleavy has said he would veto such a bill, forcing lawmakers to craft a package of legislation to win the governor’s approval.
“I feel like meetings are going well. I feel like there’s good-faith participation by both sides,” Wielechowski, one of the negotiators, said Thursday.
Allard said by email that she did not have details or updates to share, but that the negotiating team has been “working hard and having many productive discussions.”
Some of the biggest sticking points between the House and Senate negotiators include the size of the BSA boost, the teacher bonuses and the funding increase currently earmarked for homeschool students. The provisions to enable a statewide board appointed by the governor to authorize new charter schools has been criticized by education advocates as threatening local control.
Tobin said that applicants currently need to “wade through murky waters” to go through the process of getting a charter school approved by their local school boards. She said one alternative idea to the current proposal is to create a dedicated position at the state Education Department to better assist applicants.
The teacher bonuses proposed by Dunleavy would range from $5,000 for teachers in urban Alaska to $15,000 for teachers in rural Alaska. The Legislature’s attorneys have warned the bonuses could violate collective bargaining agreements and the state constitution’s equal protection doctrine.
Dunleavy said on Wednesday that he was not worried about those legal concerns. He said that the bonuses should be implemented on a trial basis for three years to see if they’re effective in improving recruitment and retention of teachers.
Tobin said one concern is that the significant number of foreign teachers working in Alaska on temporary visas could simply take those bonuses with them. Education advocates have suggested a salary boost for a broader number of school staff, including guidance counselors and janitors.
Johnson declined on Thursday to say how the closed-door discussions have been going on the proposed BSA increase, but he said the intention is still to pass the bill quickly. He said there was “a path forward” on the charter school provisions, adding, “It just depends on what’s tolerable for both sides. I think there is a path forward on almost all of it.”
Since the beginning of the legislative session, Dunleavy has pointed to a first-of-its-kind Harvard study that found Alaska’s public charter schools perform at the top of the nation. On Wednesday, he said a negotiated package in the Legislature would have to include a provision supporting charter schools to gain his support.
“I’ve got to tell you, any moment I’ll be called to go talk somewhere nationally about our charter schools,” Dunleavy said.
In presentations this week, the head author of the study said it showed correlation but not causation — meaning the study does not provide an explanation for why Alaska’s charter schools perform so well. Dunleavy posited that it’s because Alaska’s charter schools have less teacher turnover since “there’s more alignment as to what people want.”
“You would think you would hear parade music and people dancing in the streets, but in some sectors this has caused a problem because it doesn’t fit the narrative,” he said.
Klaameyer said in response that Dunleavy was using the study “to promote his plans for a charter school takeover in Alaska.”
“I believe that if something is working well, don’t alter the very mechanisms that allow it to perform,” Klaameyer said.