Alaska Legislature

Sweeping education bill in limbo after split vote in Alaska House

JUNEAU — Alaska House Republicans fell short on Monday in garnering enough votes to advance their education priorities, gumming up the process for approving a funding boost for Alaska schools that education advocates say is sorely needed.

Twenty House Republicans voted in favor of hearing a proposal that sought to attach a funding increase for public schools with measures that the GOP supports, including sending more public funds to homeschooled students and increasing the number of public charter schools in the state. Twenty other representatives voted no.

That left the divided chamber in a familiar place: limbo.

Education has dominated conversations in the Legislature since the session began last month. The mostly Republican House majority vowed to quickly address school funding in a quest to put to bed early calls for the Legislature to override Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s veto of around $87 million in school funding last year.

But the 23-member House majority includes in its ranks three non-Republicans — independent Rep. Bryce Edgmon of Dillingham, Democratic Rep. CJ McCormick of Bethel, and Democratic Rep. Neal Foster of Nome — who all opposed the package crafted by the GOP.

The 20 Republicans in the majority on Monday painted a picture of all-or-nothing. A vote against their omnibus bill, they said, was a vote against education funding altogether.


“To stop now is to surrender and I am not prepared to surrender,” said Rep. Craig Johnson, an Anchorage Republican, waving a white sheet of paper in the air as he called on House members to reconsider their position on a proposal he has championed.

“A lot of this stuff dies with this vote today. So I ask you to search your soul — are we better off surrendering? Or are we better off at least vetting it?” Johnson asked.

But the other half of the chamber rejected that premise. Members of the mostly-Democratic House minority said that with weeks remaining in the annual legislative session, there was still time for a more carefully considered approach to crafting the state’s education policy.

Opponents of the GOP’s plan pointed to the unusual process that had been used to bring the proposal to a vote. Republicans had tried to tack on their ideas to a bill that had already passed the Senate and gone through a committee hearing process in the House, circumventing the possibility for lengthy public comment or scrutiny of the bill’s impacts on the state’s finances.

“You can complain about process all you want. The process is what it is and it’s been done many times before,” said Johnson.

House Republicans pitched their plan — which includes a $77 million in an annual increase to the state’s per-student formula; $58 million in teacher bonus payments; at least $40 million for home-schooled students; and a provision meant to increase the number of charter schools in Alaska — as an alternative to a simple increase to the per-student funding formula.

[A high cost of living and lack of pension strain Alaska teachers. Would bonuses help keep them?]

Education advocates say the state’s spending on schools must be increased by more than $350 million per year to account for several years with no adjustments for inflation. The bipartisan Senate majority passed last year a bill that would have increased the state’s spending by $175 million.

But both Dunleavy and House Republicans have said that a straight increase to school funding — without a change to how the money is spent — is unacceptable to them. They cite Alaska students’ low scores in reading and math assessments. Alaska educators say that flat funding is in part to blame for those scores. School administrators have told lawmakers that it is hard to address falling student performance when flat funding has for several years forced schools to cut teacher positions, increase class sizes, and nix special programs. The state’s largest school districts all face multi-million dollar deficits in the coming year.

Early during Monday’s floor debate, Minority Leader Calvin Schrage, an Anchorage independent, called Republicans’ proposal “a Frankenstein monster of a bill.”

Schrage said the majority had presented lawmakers with a choice: “accept our monster or screw education.”

“That’s unacceptable,” he said.

Edgmon — an independent member of the majority — said he had not known how he would vote on the proposal when the day began on Monday.

“I was really troubled by a lot of things,” said Edgmon. “I did not know what button I was going to push.”

[Dunleavy proposal could give Alaska companies tax breaks if they spend money on worker housing and child care]

After “a whole bunch of soul searching” and conversations with other members of the Bush Caucus — which represents rural districts — Edgmon said he decided he could not vote for a bill that had not gone through the traditional vetting process.

Rep. David Eastman, the right-wing Wasilla Republican who does not belong to the majority caucus, called the measure an “injury to the public transparency,” before voting against it.


On Monday morning, the House appeared poised for battle. Dozens of amendments had been drafted. Educators had filled the public galleries. But the 20-20 vote on the procedural question — whether to adopt a committee substitute for the bill that included the changes sought by House Republicans — had put a quick stop to that impending legislative battle.

After the failed vote, several House Republicans spoke in favor of taking another vote to reconsider the action, but that didn’t happen on Monday.

During a lunch break that began at 1 p.m. and lasted past 5 p.m., House members behind closed doors tried to hammer out a deal that would satisfy a majority of members. When they failed to do so, they adjourned until 11 a.m. on Tuesday.

“I don’t think the plan went off the track,” said Speaker Cathy Tilton, a Wasilla Republican, after the chamber adjourned for the day. “With this big of a policy and as much policy as there is, people are just trying to figure out where they’re at with it.”

[Anchorage School District plan to cut dedicated elementary art classes and health instructors draws concern]

Schrage, who has complained the minority has not been involved in the House education negotiations, called Monday’s closed-door meetings a “good initial discussion” and said he was looking forward “to again try and find a path forward that allows us to adequately fund public education.”

Johnson said he had been expecting all members of the majority — including non-Republicans — to vote in favor of advancing the omnibus measure.

“I’m not disappointed in anything. We just go on,” said Johnson.


Johnson said the plan remains to take up the omnibus bill on Tuesday.

Monday’s vote came more than a week after members of both the House and Senate majorities had formed a negotiating team to work out a bipartisan compromise on education legislation. But Sen. Löki Tobin, an Anchorage Democrat who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said those negotiations had ended with no resolution.

“It has been made abundantly clear that the House majority is not a binding caucus, which means it’s difficult to have any level of negotiations,” Tobin said Monday. She said that the House majority caucus determined it would “continue forward without negotiating further.”

“We worked on policy, but we never really came down to the nitty-gritty of saying ‘this is the language that will be introduced,’” said Tobin.

Sean Maguire reported from Juneau and Iris Samuels reported from Anchorage.

• • •

Sean Maguire

Sean Maguire is a politics and general assignment reporter for the Anchorage Daily News based in Juneau. He previously reported from Juneau for Alaska's News Source. Contact him at

Iris Samuels

Iris Samuels is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News focusing on state politics. She previously covered Montana for The AP and Report for America and wrote for the Kodiak Daily Mirror. Contact her at