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Day 58: Education funding uncertainty
"My personal position is that it's clear to me that education needs some sort of funding in order to continue."
Good afternoon, Alaska! It’s Day 58 of the legislative session and Daylight Saving Time is still really messing with me.
In this edition: The Senate is moving forward with its education funding bill with what could be a big increase for K-12 funding, but with a Republican-led House Majority that’s offering conflicting messages on school funding it’s far too early to start celebrating. Let’s look at the bill, what’s it in and what’s going on in the House. Also, an notable line from the House about the dividend. And the reading list.
Current mood: 😴
Education funding uncertainty
Without much fanfare on Monday, the Senate Education Committee advanced legislation to increase the base student allocation over the next two years and tie it to inflation in the years after that. There were no long-winded speeches about education or the importance of the work they’re doing, just a simple explanation of the bill and a unanimous vote by the committee’s two Republicans and three Democrats.
Perhaps that’s because there’s still a long and uncertain path ahead for the legislation.
While it’s almost certain to pass the Senate where leadership has made it a top priority for the session, the Republican-led House appears divided on whether an increase to education funding—as districts around the state face a bad combination of rising inflation, expiring one-time money and years of otherwise flat funding—can wait for another day.
But before we get into that, let’s look at what the Senate’s latest version of the BSA increase would do:
Increases the BSA by $1,000 for the next school year, roughly $257 million.
Increases the BSA by an additional $348 the following year
The BSA would automatically increase after that based on inflation
The state of Alaska would create a database pulling together academic and budgetary information for schools and districts
Creates a program between the departments of Education and Labor to track the high school graduates on employment, post-secondary education and residency over a 20 year period
The legislation is a mixture of additional funding and the nebulous “accountability” measures that conservatives have demanded. Senate Education Committee Chair Sen. Löki Tobin has said she’s interested in funding schools beyond just maintaining the status quo and wants to see the state increase its investment in education, she’s also been open with the fact that they’ve been working with both Gov. Mike Dunleavy and the House Majority on the package, though neither have committed to passing it.
A new conference hosted by the House Majority, whose members have offered conflicting signals, on Tuesday didn’t offer much clarity on the situation.
On one end of things, there’s House Education Committee co-Chair Rep. Justin Ruffridge who has recognized the need to increase school funding—the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District in his district faces a $13 million deficit (that they’re planning on covering with $10 million in savings and $3 million in cuts) and would receive $17 million under this legislation—and has been particularly interested in understanding the costs of the duties the Legislature has added on in recent years.
“My personal position is that it’s clear to me that education needs some sort of funding in order to continue. We have a lot of unfunded mandates and the list continues to grow right up into the READS Act,” he said, referring to the new reading bill passed last year. “School districts, when I talk to them, are nervous about how are we going to produce the outcomes that Alaska parents want to see, which is children being able to read by third grade, without some sort of mechanism by which to accomplish that. That would be funding of some sort.”
And then there’s House Education Committee co-Chair Rep. Jamie Allard, the Eagle River Republican who has made it clear that she’d rather be working on Gov. Dunleavy’s legislation—one that would pay teachers bonuses after completing a school year over the next three years and another that largely mirrors notorious “Don’t Say Gay” bills in other states—than on the bigger picture of school funding.
“They need to understand a BSA increase isn’t going to solve the problems,” she said, at the news conference blaming unions for having too much say in school spending. “I would also be looking at bringing the foundation formula to a task force during the intermittent time of the session so that we can address the formula and calculation. It needs to be torn apart and rebuilt.”
She’s specifically referring to the foundation formula, which takes the base student allocation and runs it through a set of calculations that take into account the location of a school district, its size and the needs of individual students to determine overall funding. At the news conference, she said it was unfair that some school districts receive tens of thousands of dollars per student while Anchorage doesn’t. She also claimed the foundation formula incentivizes schools to hold children back, apparently pointing to the multiplier for special needs students who require intensive services.
“A lot of people might not know it but within the school district, if your child isn’t proficient and there’s a certain reading that child is paid for by the state. They get $77,000 for each child under special needs that isn’t proficient at reading,” she said. “For every child who is not reading, the school districts are being paid and they’re making money hand over fist, and I will say that on the record.”
To be clear, the funding she’s talking about is specifically for special needs students requiring intensive services, including individual instruction and other services needed to meet the student’s health, safety and educational needs. Students who can function independently with limited or no supervision cannot qualify for the heightened funding. Honestly, comparing these students to “every child who is not reading” is, well, pretty much expected from Rep. Allard, but still troubling to hear come from the co-chair of the House Education Committee.
When asked about the clear conflict between the two positions, Ruffridge said that he ultimately believes in the committee process and that everyone will have their say on the legislation as one of the 40 members of the House.
Why it matters: While Ruffridge isn’t likely to rubber stamp the Senate’s legislation, he’ll be one of the key legislators in deciding whether or not education funding gets taken up in a serious way this year. If left up to Allard, the issue would likely be punted to next session and tied up in a much larger fight over the foundation formula that seems to largely be rooted in urban versus rural districts.
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‘The PFD is going to take care of itself this year’
One of the big looming issues in this year’s budget is, of course, the dividend. With a House Majority filled with folks who’ve made most of their political career turning the screws on the legislative process in order to get the biggest PFD possible, this answer from House Ways and Means Committee Chair Rep. Ben Carpenter is, well, interesting. Here’s what he had to say about the dividend during Tuesday’s news conference:
“I would like to see a time where Alaskans are asking the question, ‘What is our economy doing, are we going to have more jobs next year than we had this year? When my kids graduate high school in May, are there going to be jobs available?’ Instead of, ‘What size of PFD am I gonna get?’ I want to get to a point where state government just does the PFD and we don’t have to have the conversation anymore because it’s distracting from getting a whole lot of things done that are more important within state government, so the PFD is going to take care of itself this year. We’re going to have a spring forecast coming out, and that spring forecast isn’t gonna show we have more economic activity in this state, generating more state revenue. It’s not going to show that. It needs to. It needs to be the focus of us and Alaskans, what do we need to do to grow our economy. Haggling over the PFD isn’t going to grow our economy.”
Why it matters: Turns out it’s not as easy to demand a large dividend when you’re in the majority and responsible for passing a budget.
Following the Legislature’s rejection of pay raises for Gov. Dunleavy and his cabinet, everyone on the Alaska State Officers Compensation Commission has either resigned or been removed. From the ADN: All 5 members of Alaska salary commission removed or resign ahead of meeting
Following revelations that the head of the Federation of Community Councils helped beat a land development in Girdwood, Mayor Dave Bronson is seeking to defund the organization altogether. Never let a good crisis go to waste. From The Alaska Current: Mayor Dave Bronson Threatens to Defund Federation of Community Councils
Gov. Dunleavy’s budget is emerging from the House pretty much unscathed. Helps to have a friendly House. From the Beacon: After years of contentious fights, Alaska’s state budget is advancing smoothly in the House
After Ryan Redington’s win, Richie Diehl and Pete Kaiser say they’re showing that rural mushing isn’t dying. From Alaska Public: Kaiser and Diehl round out ‘almost unheard of’ all Alaska Native Iditarod podium
Another setback for the King Cove road. From the ADN: Interior secretary withdraws land exchange but signals support for road through Alaska wildlife refuge
The ACLU of Alaska has filed another lawsuit against the Department of Corrections, arguing its medication process violates due process rights. From the Associated Press: ACLU of Alaska sues over prison involuntary medication rules