Wide-ranging Alaska House education bill would boost school funding but faces uncertain future

The House Rules Committee, which controls what legislation goes to the House floor, meets on Jan. 17, 2024 to consider a wide-ranging education bill. (Eric Stone/Alaska Public Media)

The Alaska House of Representatives’ Republican-led majority caucus unveiled and quickly advanced a package of education reforms last week. The legislation includes a long-term boost to public education funding but faces an uncertain future.

The bill would increase a key part of the state’s education funding formula – the base student allocation, essentially the funding for each student in a district – by $300. That would cost the state about $77 million per year.

Substantial increases to the base student allocation have eluded lawmakers in recent years. The 2022 Alaska Reads Act increased the base student allocation by $30, about half a percent. But aside from that, per-student funding has stayed flat since 2017. It’s now $5,960 per student.

However, on several occasions, the Legislature has added one-time funding for public schools without making a permanent change to the formula. Last year, lawmakers added $175 million in one-time funding for K-12 schools, or about  $680 per student, but a veto from Gov. Mike Dunleavy cut that figure in half.

At a hearing on Saturday, Rep. Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage, who chairs the House Rules Committee, said a long-term $300 increase would allow schools to plan for the future.

“This is the first substantive increase, and a long-term, permanent pot of money that the schools can start saying, ‘We have this now. We have this next year. We will have it the following year,’” Johnson told a crowded hearing room. “The value of that has not been considered.”

School district leaders and parents across the state testified at the weekend hearing, with a large majority telling lawmakers that the $300 increase wasn’t enough. Some said it amounted to a cut, since lawmakers approved more in one-time funding last year.

Lon Garrison leads the Association of Alaska School Boards, and he said the $300 increase would not keep pace with inflation. 

“The proposed $300 BSA increase falls significantly short,” he said. “School districts across the state are facing unprecedented budget shortfalls that are creating an opportunity cost for our children in the state that they cannot afford.”

His group, which lobbies on behalf of local school boards across the state, is pushing for a much larger bump to the base student allocation: $1,413.

House Minority Leader Rep. Calvin Schrage, I-Anchorage, offered an amendment – that failed – to increase the base student allocation by that amount.

“This looks like austerity. It looks like divestment,” he said of the $300 figure. “It looks like a lack of support for public education. And I think it is shameful that the state of Alaska fails to invest in our most valuable and precious resource that we have as a citizenry.”

Charter school provisions draw controversy

Another controversial provision would streamline the approval process for charter schools. The change would allow the state Board of Education to directly approve charter schools instead of waiting for an application from a local school district. 

Education Commissioner Deena Bishop said the approach is based on a recent study from Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance, which found that students at state-authorized charter schools score higher than those at charter approved by local governments.

“Many public charter schools in Alaska often operate on a lottery system for enrollment, as there is limited space,” Bishop told the committee. “Expanding the state authorization process is an investment in our students and families to grow learning opportunities.”

The study ranked Alaska’s charter schools as the highest-performing in the nation.

Though the study cautions that the results may be skewed by “the challenge of controlling for Alaska’s distinctive [I]ndigenous population,” the researchers found that the results essentially held up when controlling for income and geographic setting. The results are in stark contrast to a similar ranking of Alaska’s traditional public schools, which rank 46th out of 50.

But some committee members raised concerns about the charter school provisions. Schrage, the minority leader, said he was worried that allowing the state to directly authorize charter schools would undermine efforts at oversight from local school boards.

“What this change outlined in the bill would ultimately do is take away all of that local control and put it in the hands of a board which is not elected and which serves at the whim of the governor,” Schrage said.

Bishop replied that the bill would not take away local control, but instead add an alternative way of certifying charter schools.

Key lawmakers voice concerns about wide scope

In addition to the charter school provisions added by the House Rules Committee, there’s a bump to funding for student transportation – things like school buses and bus drivers, a series of protections for deaf and hard-of-hearing children, plus a proposal to create a new state school for deaf children. There’s also an increase in correspondence school funding and a proposal to pay teachers bonuses ranging from $5,000 to $15,000.

The wide range of proposals included in the bill is causing some heartburn for members of the Senate’s bipartisan supermajority, including Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, who said he is “very concerned” about the bill.

“A lot of the issues in that bill we’ve not, have not been vetted,” Stevens said in an interview on Monday.

Stevens and seven other members of the 17-member supermajority sent a letter outlining their concerns to the House. Because the bill passed the Senate last year – albeit without many of the provisions added in the House – the Senate likely won’t have a chance to gather public input in committee hearings before voting on a final proposal.

“We really have to take the time to go through the committee process and hear those issues and see what the public thinks about them and whether it’s a good idea or not, so I’m really concerned at this early stage that so much has been thrown into that one bill,” Stevens said.

The bill would also help boost internet speeds at many rural schools. That was the original purpose of the bill when it was introduced in the Senate last year. The senators’ letter to the House expressed concern that the wide scope could put that original goal at risk.

“These amendments risk slowing down or even jeopardizing Alaska’s ability to receive broadband internet funding,” the letter reads.

But before senators weigh in, it has to pass on the House floor – and with its slim margins, the majority can only afford to lose two votes. And that may present a problem: earlier in the session, three House majority members voted to restore some $87 million in education funding vetoed by the governor.

Rep. CJ McCormick, D-Bethel, who caucuses with the Republican-led House majority, was one of the members who voted to override the veto. He declined to say whether he’d support the bill on the floor, noting that it could change significantly with amendments. But McCormick said he favored a larger boost in per-student funding.

“The BSA is always going to be top of mind,” he said Monday as he left the House chamber. “I’ve said it before, I’ll say it once again, $680 is not even enough.”

Rep. Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, another majority member who voted to restore the vetoed school funding, also told the Anchorage Daily News he had concerns about the bill’s wide range of proposals.

Johnson, the House Rules chair, said the bill is likely to reach the House floor for debate and amendments later in the week.

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Eric Stone covers state government, tracking the Alaska Legislature, state policy and its impact on all Alaskans. Reach him at estone@alaskapublic.org.

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