The Senate Education Committee on Wednesday introduced a bill proposing a $1,000 increase to the amount Alaska’s state government pays schools per student. This proposed base student allocation increase comes as dozens of people have testified and hundreds rallied at the Capitol in recent weeks for better public education funding.
The amount per student is on track to be $5,960 starting next school year, a $30 increase from what it is now and has been since 2017. The new proposal, Senate Bill 52, would raise the amount to $6,960.
If passed, it would represent the largest BSA increase in a single year. Still, Caroline Storm, steering committee member of the volunteer advocacy group Great Alaska Schools, said it’s not enough.
“I consider a $1,000 increase a start. I would like to see it higher just to make public schools whole again,” Storm said Wednesday.
A Jan. 30 memo by nonpartisan budget analysts for the Legislature looked at the impact of inflation on K-12 funding over the past decade. The Legislative Finance Division memo laid out a couple amounts the BSA would need to increase by to match the buying power of years past. Taking into account the Legislature’s one-time education funding increases that are in addition to the base student allocation, the BSA would need to increase by $1,348 to match the buying power of peak year 2015. Looking solely at the funding formula without the one-time funding amounts, the BSA would need to increase by $1,195. A $1,000 increase is below both those figures.
Storm said Alaska’s public education system has been “woefully underfunded,” and the proposed increase is not adequate.
“I will be encouraging our members to reach out to their legislators and indicate that $1,000 is not enough,” she said. “It is absolutely critical that we invest in our kids. Otherwise, we do not have a future. This is not necessarily an economical question; it’s a question of priorities for the state and if we want to make Alaska the viable and vibrant state that people keep talking about, we have to prioritize public education.”
‘Beginning of a conversation’
Adequate funding for public education is the “chief priority” of the Senate majority caucus, said Senate Education Committee Chair Sen. Löki Gale Tobin, D-Anchorage, during a press availability Wednesday. She repeated many times that the bill proposing a $1,000 increase to the per student funding is the “beginning of a conversation.”
“We will be continuing to have more public testimony opportunities and more invited testimony to hear from our education stakeholders about whether this is the right number that we’ve landed upon,” she said.
Tobin pointed out that adequate school funding is made of a “multitude of pieces.”
“It’s not just the base student allocation; that’s also talking about retirement and health care and pupil transport. This is a first step of a long conversation we’ll be having in Senate Education around how do we adequately support our schools,” she said.
When it comes to protecting education funding from inflation into the future, known as “inflation proofing,” Tobin said the education committee would rely on the Senate Finance Committee to “flesh out that conversation.”
‘Something has to give’
Another area that Senate Finance will have to tackle is balancing education funding with other needs of the state.
A $1,000 increase to the BSA would mean a projected $257 million increase to the state’s budget, according to the Legislative Finance memo.
The governor’s proposed budget includes about $2.5 billion for Permanent Fund dividends – enough for a payment of about $3,860 per recipient this fall. Lowering that to a $1,300 dividend would pay for the $1,000 BSA increase, the budget deficit and pay off municipal bond debt for almost the entire state, said Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, the Senate Finance co-chair.
“We’re going to have to make a choice. Do we want to teach our kids to cash checks? Or do we want to teach them to read and write and do arithmetic? And that’ll be fundamentals of the debate, because something has to give,” he said.
About two dozen people offered public testimony to the Senate Education Committee on Monday on the challenges facing public education in Alaska. Most who testified supported an increase of the base student allocation.
Dillingham School District Superintendent Amy Brower painted a grim picture that includes rising costs of health care and transportation, lack of adequate teacher housing and vacant teacher positions.
“I have had to make the hard decisions to cut teacher positions, eliminate support services and restructure critical programming,” Brower said.
Brower doesn’t just support a significant increase to the BSA, she said she wants to see “perpetual annual rate of inflation increases thereafter.”
“Each dollar we get in funding today purchases less than that dollar’s purchase in 2017, the year of the last BSA increase. Plainspoken, we have lost purchasing power. While schools have received flat funding for the past six years, the cost of doing business has increased year over year, especially with fixed costs out of our control,” Brower said, citing increases to health care, transportation, utilities, shipping and supplies.
“In Dillingham health insurance costs have increased between 13 and 18% each year. We are expecting a 16% increase for FY24,” said Brower, referring to the fiscal year that starts in July. “The fuel costs this year has almost doubled, impacting our transportation, housing, quality of living, shipping and food program costs.”
Brower has also struggled to retain teachers, losing three in December: “The primary issue was the expense and condition of housing, and lack of livable wages.”
When she moved to Dillingham over the summer, she and her family spent five weeks living in the school in a room with no hot water. Other teachers have had to do the same. Brower said the lack of housing in rural and remote Alaska is growing, and it’s imperative to do something about it.
Public comment on the challenges facing public education in Alaska continued in the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday. The committee plans to take up the BSA increase bill next week on Feb. 8.
Alaska Beacon is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Alaska Beacon maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Andrew Kitchenman for questions: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Alaska Beacon on Facebook and Twitter.