AKLEG Day 9: 'It was kinda backed into.'
The hasty bull rush to pass a sweeping education bill is running into the political reality of the Legislature.
Good afternoon, Alaska. It’s the ninth day of the Alaska legislative session.
In this edition: The House Republicans’ race to pass a sweeping education bill is running into the hard reality that legislators aren’t exactly enamored with the whole “pass it first, then we can talk about it” approach to legislating. The House will have an extraordinarily narrow path ahead, which is made more complicated by the long-overdue removal of a certain far-right legislator from his only committee assignment.
Current mood: 🥶
'It was kinda backed into.'
“I wouldn’t say it was thoughtful, but sometimes you put something on paper knowing it’s going to change ... That’s basically how it was done. We went with the big number, backed it out, started with that, added the other stuff and came up with a number very close to what the governor can live with. He really, I don’t think, wants any BSA. You’d have to ask him about that. We were able to work with that. I’m not saying we plucked it out of the air—we did not—but it was kinda backed into it, for lack of a better term.”
House Rules Committee Chair Rep. Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage, on how the House Majority decided on a $300 increase to the base student allocation.
The Republican House Majority’s plan to bull-rush its education bill through the legislative process—compressing what normally would be weeks, if not months, of hearings, deliberations and debates into just a few days—is running headlong into resistance from teachers, students, families, education advocacy groups, school districts, the bipartisan 17-member Senate Majority and even some of the House Majority’s own members, putting the speedy passage of the bill—if not its entire future—into doubt.
“In its amended form, the Senate Majority will have a hard time supporting significant unvetted policy changes in SB 140 that affect the delivery of public education, the loss of local control, increased classroom sizes, and continued hardship on our dedicated educators,” warned a letter signed by the Senate Majority leadership on Monday.
That came after the eight-hour House Rules Committee hearing over the weekend, where legislators heard near-unanimous opposition to the Republican education package. Testifiers from around the state pleaded with the committee to reconsider the bill, arguing that there were too many unanswered questions about the many policies that had been rolled into the bill and that the small BSA increase is still not enough to properly fund schools.
Of the half-dozen policies tacked onto the bill, the proposed expansion of charter schools raised the most concern. The legislation would allow the state Board of Education—wholly appointed by the governor—to approve new charter schools without any input or oversight from the local school districts that would be forced to operate them. Several testifiers worried it would politicize the process and open the door for programs to spend public education money on private and religious instruction, violating the Alaska Constitution.
Department of Education Commissioner Deena Bishop was unable to answer questions about how it would affect funding for school districts, testing opt-out rates for charter schools, how many charter schools are being rejected under the current process or how accessible attending a charter school really is for most Alaskans.
That seems to be a running theme with much of the bill.
At the House Majority news conference on Tuesday, House Rules Committee Chair Rep. Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage, said there wasn’t that much thought put into the $300 increase to the base student allocation.
“I wouldn’t say it was thoughtful, but sometimes you put something on paper knowing it’s going to change,” he said, referencing the floor amendment process.
He explained they started out with an overall price tag for the legislation—about $200 million—and the $77 million for the BSA was what was left over after increases to funding for students in public programs, the governor’s controversial teacher bonus program and other increases like internet upgrades for rural schools (which was the original intent of the legislation).
“That’s basically how it was done,” he said. “We went with the big number, backed it out, started with that, added the other stuff and came up with the number very close to what the governor can live with. He really, I don’t think, wants any BSA. You’d have to ask him about that. We were able to work with that. I’m not saying we plucked it out of the air—we did not—but it was kinda backed into it, for lack of a better term.”
It’s a concession that should confirm the many concerns with not only the pace of the legislation, but the lack of meaningful thought and consideration put into it.
And there are some massive changes to education policy contained in this bill. It proposes boosting the funding for homeschool students to an equal level with students at brick-and-mortar schools at about $23 million. It proposes $56 million in teacher bonuses that leave critical support staff out in the cold while also raising a litany of legal issues.
But the biggest unknowns are around the charter school expansion. While it’s being pitched as a panacea to Alaska’s low ranking on standardized tests, critics worry it’ll create a two-tiered education system that will only deepen the existing gulf between students from poor and wealthy families.
As was pointed out during the hearing, most public charter schools don’t provide transportation—a point that Bishop seemed to think was not a big issue, citing a Mat-Su charter where parents rallied to fund their own busing as if it could be a standard approach. Some don’t have prepared meals. Others require parents to volunteer. Those barriers may seem minor to some, but most teachers can tell you there are far too many kids currently coming to school hungry or tired—and sometimes not at all.
During floor speeches on Tuesday, Tok Republican Rep. Mike Cronk—a former teacher turned education-skeptical Republican legislator—spoke in favor of the House’s approach, arguing that the true key to improving student outcomes is improving the well-being of families around Alaska.
He has a point, but that’s not a reason to starve a system already stretched too thin. If the troubles we see in school performance are due in part to outside factors like food insecurity, unstable households and homelessness—remember that at least two-thirds of adults in Alaska have reported experiencing at least one adverse childhood experience—then isn’t that all the more reason to fund the one of the only broadly available safety nets many of those kids have?
It’s a reality that others in the Alaska Legislature understand, and why an increase to the base student allocation is seen as the fairest way to ensure funding reaches as many students as equitably as possible.
“Not every family can get their child to a charter school. Not every family can homeschool. I have volunteered in schools that are Title I schools, parents working two jobs, maybe it's not even a plural parent, maybe it's a single parent, maybe it's a grandparent raising a child. You know, we have to provide for all the students of the state," said Senate Majority Leader Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, at the Senate Majority’s Tuesday news conference. "That's what the base student allocation does. It provides free public education for every Alaska child."
Follow the threads:
At the news conference, Johnson said he plans to continue to push the legislation, calling the letter from the Senate Majority “cute.”
“I have found in my experience as a legislator and in private business is when you really don’t want to have a meaningful conversation and get face-to-face to solve a problem, you write a letter,” he said, accusing the Senate of undermining the process. “I think that’s what’s happened here. … I think it’s cute. Does it make any difference?”
What may make a difference is that the three non-Republican members of the House Majority—all of whom represent rural legislative districts—have signaled wariness about the legislation.
“I am really reluctant to support something that hasn’t been fully examined, cross-examined, involved the public at every step of the way,” Rep. Bryce Edgmon, a Dillingham independent, told the Anchorage Daily News.
Without their support, the House Majority would be at just 20 members, a vote shy of what’s needed to pass the legislation. Winning over those three members or members of the House Minority would likely require significant changes to the bill, such as the removal of the charter school provisions and an increase in school funding.
Which brings me to…
Eastman stripped of House Judiciary assignment
On Monday, the Alaska House voted 39-1 to remove Wasilla Republican Rep. David Eastman from the House Judiciary Committee, a seat that he was never entitled to and used to ask whether the death of abused kids could potentially be a “benefit to society” because they would no longer be relying on government services.
Those comments earned Eastman a censure last session, but he kept his seat on the House Judiciary Committee nevertheless.
On Tuesday, House Majority leadership didn’t publicly address the decision ahead of the vote. Eastman made motions to halt the move but found no support from other House legislators. When he asked for some public explanation of the decision, none came.
“We can only speculate on what that answer is,” he said during floor speeches. “The only thing that I’ve been told by anyone in the majority about the vote we took is that my decision last week to stand up for the constitution did not help majority members in voting to keep me on the committee.”
That would be a reference to his support of taking up Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s veto of $87 million of education funding. While Eastman supported the cut, he argued that holding such a vote was required under the Alaska Constitution.
The House Majority hoped to block the vote, sparing legislators who had supported the funding from choosing between it and angering the governor. But Eastman’s thinking caught on with enough far-right Republicans to override the Majority, and the vote was held on Thursday. The vote failed as was expected, given the high bar for budget overrides, but it also saw several Republicans who had supported the funding vote against restoring it.
Rep. Jesse Sumner, the Wasilla Republican who ran against Eastman in 2020 with the backing of several incumbent Republican legislators before winning a different seat following the latest round of redistricting, will replace Eastman on the committee.
Follow the thread: The House votes to remove Eastman from Judiciary.
The Alaska Memo by Matt Buxton is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.