Day 10: ‘We're just asking for the crust’
Education advocates ask for what looks like a big increase to K-12 funding, but would just maintain the status quo amid escalating inflation.
Good morning, Alaska. It’s Day 10 of the legislative session.
In this edition: The Senate Education Committee got a good look at the state of school funding in Alaska and the picture isn’t good—it’s filled with teacher turnover, uncertainty and bulging, mold-covered walls. At least, though, the committee didn’t have to spend a bunch of time going over the old conservative gripes that overlook the unique challenges of educating in Alaska. Meanwhile, the House and Senate finance committees have both had their initial overviews on the operating budget so let’s look at some of the takeaways. Also, the daily schedule.
Current mood: 😟
‘We’re just asking for the crust’
Nearly 400 vacant teaching positions on the first day of school, a card of school district superintendents with nearly every face crossed off as gone from the job and pictures of a school building with bulging siding, mold-covered walls and a foundation lifted with a pile of spare wood pieces. Those were just some of the images and anecdotes from Wednesday’s presentation of education advocates to the Senate Education Committee on the financial concerns facing Alaska’s school system.
As covid money expires and inflation catches up on a decade of meager increases to the state’s education funding formula, schools across Alaska are on the ledge with many facing massive budget gaps that will force school closures, elimination of programs and ballooning class sizes. All on top of existing structural problems with teacher recruitment and retention that’s made a revolving door for teachers.
As session gets underway, schools and advocates are seeking for what looks like a massive increase for education funding on paper but would only keep up with the roughly 24% increase in inflation since 2017, the last time there was a big-ish increase to the base student allocation (BSA) formula.
“I want to be clear, we are not asking for whipped cream or ice cream on top of the pie, we’re just asking for the crust,” Dr. Lisa Parady, the executive director of the Alaska Council of School Administrators, told the committee.
The Association of School Boards, a nonprofit that represents 52 of the state’s 54 school districts, is asking for a $860 increase to the BSA, raising it from $5,930 to $6,820 to match the inflation-adjusted amount from 2017. Lon Garrison, the executive director of the group, told senators that they’d also like to see the funding tied to inflation so such a large gap between funding and buying power doesn’t come back to haunt them. He also suggested that a long-term funding plan akin to an endowment be considered to remove K-12 funding from the annual budget fights.
Where the advocates might have once been peppered with questions by skeptical legislators about things like how Alaska already spends the most per student out of any state in the country (ignoring the additional costs of running a school in Alaska) or how its lagging test scores won’t be served by additional dollars or how additional dollars will just line the pockets of administrators rather than going into the schools (when a total of 74% goes to instruction spread over several different categories), this year’s Senate Finance Committee was far more receptive of the message.
That’s because the committee has many new faces than last session in Anchorage Democratic Sen. Löki Tobin and Soldtona Republican Sen. Jesse Bjorkman (who’s a high school history teacher) as well as long-time education supporters Sens. Jesse Kiehl, Gary Stevens and Elvi Gray-Jackson.
Increasing education funding this year is one of the Senate Majority’s priorities, as well as public employee recruitment and retention. Recruitment and retention of teachers was also a major talking point at the hearing with some of the advocates calling for a returned to a defined benefit system for teachers as well as increased pay and support to stem the hemorrhaging of teachers. There was some talk about attaching strings to the funding, but Parady stressed that this funding doesn’t enable the schools to do more than what they’re currently doing.
Sen. Bjorkman put a fine point on the reality of the situation: That the proposed increase to education funding only maintains the status quo and that greater investment would be needed to restore much of what has already been lost.
“In 10 years we’ve seen cuts to education that have meant cuts to CTE programs—career and technical education—we’ve seen cuts to world languages, we’ve seen cuts to librarians, we’ve seen cuts to counseling, we’ve seen cuts to nurses, we’ve seen cuts to the school lunch programs, we’ve seen cuts to janitorial services, we’ve seen cuts to the ability for programs to move forward that really are the reason why many kids many kids are happy about getting up and going to school every day. So, what you’re telling us that if we agree to increase the BSA by about 16% that just stops the bleeding in Alaska’s schools and really stops the schools from having to cut,” he said. “And if we want to get back to where we were with the workforce development training and with all the educational opportunities that were available then, we have to make significant investment over and above that amount, don’t we?”
Parady responded: “Absolutely, with an exclamation point.”
The committee will hear next from rural school districts on Friday.
Why it matters: While the session is a long and winding course that requires buy-in from a majority of legislators and the governor, hearings like this and the collection of new faces with a fresh perspective on the problems is a good start. It’s also hard to overlook just how much of a difference in tone we’re getting from the bipartisan Senate coalition as compared to the Republican majority of the past.
The daily schedule
The Senate Finance Committee has a 9 a.m. hearing on the governor’s proposed capital budget, which is extraordinarily anemic.
House Energy meets at 10:15 for a presentation from the Alaska Energy Authority
Noon marks the return of the Lunch and Learn with the UA Alumni Association
House Finance gets a revenue forecast overview at 1:30 p.m.
Senate Transportation meets at 1:30 p.m. for an overview of the Department of Transportation
Senate Health and Social Services has an overview with the Department of Family and Community Services at 3;30 p.m.
The Senate State Affairs gets a crack at the election results with a 3:30 hearing with recaps by the Division of Elections and Get Out the Native Vote.
It’s all about the budget
The Senate and House finance committees both got their eyes on Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s preliminary operating budget this week with presentations by state budget director Neil Steininger. The governor has until mid-February to introduce his final budget, which is where we saw all the draconian cuts materialize during Dunleavy’s infamous first year, so much can and will change.
Here’s some of the takeaways:
Forward funding of education, which relied on the rosy projections of oil revenue staying rosy, has nearly been eliminated. It’s gone from an estimated $1.2 billion, which would nearly have covered the baseline education budget for this year, to just $49.4 million. Steininger: “That’s a very volatile projection. That $49.4 million by the end of session could easily be zero.”
With the expiration of the federal Medicaid eligibility expansion coming up, the state will be charged with reviewing the eligibility of more than 200,000 people starting on April 1. There’s a 90 day window to complete that review or else the state could face something like $69.2 million in federal penalties. Neither the House nor the Senate seemed particularly confident the state has the workforce to actually get it done on time.
The falling price of oil has also extended those oil tax credits that have been haunting the state for much of the last decade. The state had hoped that the last payment would have taken care of them, but it was also linked to the price of oil. As it stands, that oil tax credit bill is at $42.7 million.
The supplemental budget, which covers extra expenses from the current fiscal year that runs through June 30, is penciled in at what Steininger conceded is a very optimistic figure. When it’s finally introduced next week, he told legislators that it’ll likely be north of $100 million.
Vacancy rates are high throughout the state departments with some seeing more than 20% of the budgeted positions go unfilled. There was some discussion on how they might address this, with the administration staying away from any definitive answers on solutions but Steininger did note that pay raises approved last year for attorneys in the Department of Law (who are not unionized) saw a significant improvement in morale and retention.
The long-term financial outlook spells doom for the status quo with massive multi-hundred million dollar deficits starting this next fiscal year. Those could be fixed with additional revenue, cuts or unstructured draws on the Alaska Permanent Fund. While Steininger stayed away from taking any position on education funding increases, he warned that any increase this year would likely require a decrease somewhere else.