Teacher retention bonus bill moves forward in Alaska House

school bus in front of building
A school bus full of preschoolers, their parents, caregivers and advocates pulled up to the Capitol building on Monday to hand out Valentine’s Day cards to state legislators on Feb. 13, 2023. (Katie Anastas/KTOO)

Alaska teachers are one step closer to getting annual retention bonuses for the next three years.

The bill, introduced by Gov. Mike Dunleavy, left the House Education Committee this week. It would give bonuses of up to $15,000 to full-time teachers at the end of each school year.

The size of the bonuses would depend on the district. Teachers in urban districts, including Anchorage, Fairbanks, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and Juneau, would get $5,000. Those in rural districts, like Ketchikan, Kodiak Island and Unalaska, would get $10,000. And teachers in the most remote districts, like Bristol Bay, Klawock and the Northwest Arctic Borough, would get $15,000.

“We’re targeting our most rural school districts because oftentimes they’re the ones that suffer the most from recruitment and retention issues,” Dunleavy said when he announced the bill in March. In the 2020-21 school year, remote rural districts had 10% more teacher turnover than urban ones, according to Education Northwest.

Implementing the bill would cost $58 million each year.

At a House Education Committee meeting Wednesday, Sitka independent Rep. Rebecca Himschoot proposed an amendment to make the bonuses permanent, rather than just for three years.

“We already have a retirement system that doesn’t necessarily ask people to stay longer than five years,” she said. “By having this incentive for only three years, it’s sort of like, ‘Come in and do your three years and then go.’ I’m trying to find ways to support teachers longer.”

Himschoot also introduced an amendment to extend the bonuses to paraprofessionals and support staff, citing shortages of bus drivers and other workers. But Rep. Mike Prax, R-North Pole, worried the cost of the amendments would put the whole bill at risk of failing.

“I think we increase the risk of getting nothing if we try and push too far,” Prax said.

Both amendments failed in 3-4 votes. Committee members voted unanimously to move the bill out of committee, but not before some expressed concerns it could put proposed increases to per-student funding at risk.

Rep. CJ McCormick, D-Bethel, said he spoke to teachers on a recent trip back home.

“I talked to them about this bill, and they straight up told me, ‘This is not what we want. They said, ‘We want good benefits and we want an increase to the BSA,’” he said. “I think this is a good thing, but I think it needs to coincide with other increases.”

Committee Chair Rep. Jamie Allard, R-Eagle River, said the retention bonuses guaranteed direct support to teachers.

“I personally believe that this increase is an incentive and a recruitment tool,” she said.

The Senate version of the bonus bill remains in the Senate Education Committee.

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