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New education bill from Senate would create virtual education hub, push for schools consolidation

JUNEAU — A new bill from Alaska Senate leaders would create a virtual education hub for the state, among other provisions aimed at reducing the state's $1.3 billion in annual schools spending.

Senate Bill 96 is sponsored by the Senate Education Committee, chaired by Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer.

Its provisions include the establishment of a "virtual education consortium," which would create a database of online courses and help train teachers in virtual instruction.

The bill has several other measures aimed at cutting costs, including one that would increase the size of one-time grants that can be given to school districts joining a state-sponsored plan for health insurance — a major cost driver for schools. Districts would have to show that the new arrangement would save money.

The new legislation would require the state education department to inspect school buses once a year, instead of twice a year. And it would also eliminate a state law requiring bus drivers to be paid twice the minimum wage.

Another provision would push districts to consolidate schools that are operating at less than 80 percent capacity — though it softens the potential blow of that section on rural districts by making the section apply only to a school that is within 25 miles driving distance of another. The bill doesn't change the current rule that stops state funding when a school's enrollment drops below 25 students.

The legislation came with no initial estimate of cost savings.

Eagle River Republican Sen. Anna MacKinnon, co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee, said the bill likely can't pass before next year's legislative session, since the current session is nearing its conclusion. But it could help reach the Senate's target of $250 million in budget cuts next year, she said.

"It's going to be a longer-term push," she said.

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