Funding remains a key sticking point in education bill debate

the Alaska State Capitol
The Alaska State Capitol on April 22, 2022, in Juneau, Alaska. (Photo by Rashah McChesney)

Members of the state House and Senate are working out the details of a wide-ranging education bill. It’s one of the top priorities for leaders of both chambers, and they’ve found some common ground. But the two bodies are further apart on at least one key issue: how much to increase state education funding.

“I think on probably 85%, maybe more, we’re more than close, we’re in alignment. Maybe not in total agreement, but at least alignment,” said Rep. Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage, at a news conference on Tuesday.

But as anyone who’s ever done a home improvement project can tell you, that last 15% is a heavy lift.

“The issues that are remaining are big issues,” said Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, at a news conference on Tuesday. “We don’t have an agreement on the BSA, which is probably the biggest one, for example.”

The BSA is the base student allocation, the base per-student state education funding that’s been the center of debate since the legislative session began in January. 

The bill offered by the House majority includes a $300 increase; senators have said they want substantially more. Last year, the House and Senate agreed to one-time funding equivalent to a $680 increase, though a veto from Gov. Mike Dunleavy cut that in half. Advocates for local school districts are asking for an increase of more than $1,400.

Sen. Jesse Bjorkman, R-Nikisi, said a significant bump in education funding is essential.

“If we expect our students to have at least the same as what they do now, or hopefully better educational opportunities and outcomes, we need to invest more in our K-12 educational opportunities,” Bjorkman said.

And students, teachers, school board members and administrators have been crowding the halls of the Capitol as the two sides work towards a deal, testifying on Monday to the Senate Education Committee on the need for more state funding.

“There are only so many branches you can cut from a tree before it dies. Alaska education is to the stump,” said Maggie Grenier, a student at Nikiski Middle/High School on the Kenai Peninsula.

Grenier, who also serves as the student member on the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District school board, says some key programs are on the chopping block.

“At the current levels of education funding, my school will lose this middle school student council, our high school student council, world language, music or art, advanced classes, a (career and technical education) class, middle school musical theater and at least one high school and middle school sport and our assistant principal position and two teachers,” she said.

And the situation is even more dire in Sleetmute, a village of less than 100 on the banks of the Kuskokwim River. Student Kiley Hayden told senators her school has been condemned and is at risk of collapse because lawmakers failed to provide money for a new roof.

“We have no tax base in our region to draw from so the only thing our district can do to address the problem on their own is to take money away from things like curriculum and staff and direct it towards maintenance issues,” she said.

The next step is for the House education bill to move to the House floor, though it’s unclear when it’ll get there. But Johnson, the House Rules chair, said he’s not expecting all of his caucus’ priorities to be included.

“There may be one issue that we don’t agree with, but overall, the package has got enough in it that we could maybe hold our nose and vote on some of the stuff we don’t like,” Johnson said.

Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, said the bipartisan Senate majority is open to a deal.

“This is the place where compromises are made,” Stevens said.

No one seems ready to predict when those compromises will come together. And even if lawmakers come together, it’s unclear what’s ahead if it passes – Johnson said talks on the bill to this point have not involved the governor’s administration.

“I’m more concerned about turning out a product out of this body than I am about the Senate or the governor, quite honestly,” Johnson said. “The governor is going to do what the governor is going to do, and the Senate is going to do what the Senate’s going to do, and we’re going to do what we’re going to do.”

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

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