Future of education bill uncertain after rural lawmakers raise early objections

three men in suits on the floor of the Alaska House of Representatives
Reps. CJ McCormick, D-Bethel, left, Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, center, and Neal Foster, D-Nome, speak during a House floor session on Feb. 19, 2024. (Eric Stone/Alaska Public Media)

The Alaska House took up a wide-ranging education bill Monday, but the proposal hit a key snag before debate even started. Three members representing areas off the road system voted against a key procedural question. That kept the bill from advancing to a full vote of the House and threw the future of the bill into limbo.

One of those members, Rep. Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, said he was concerned about provisions added by the House Rules Committee last month. He voted against adopting the Rules Committee’s version of the bill, and said he came to the chamber Monday morning with an open mind.

“I did not know what button I was going to push,” Edgmon said. “But when it came down to it, after a whole bunch of soul-searching, talking with a couple of my brethren from the Bush Caucus, before I can vote on a bill that has a lot of provisions in it, which are really unvetted — I don’t know what this charter school provision does. I don’t know what the amendment does. Yet we’re about to have that committee as a whole discussion, apparently.”

The bill would ease the approval process for charter schools, boost correspondence schools and student transportation and bolster internet speeds across the state. It would also increase the base student allocation, a key piece of the state’s education funding formula, by $300.

Edgmon said he was skeptical of a provision that would give teachers annual retention bonuses of up to $15,000, saying it could pit certified teachers and classified school staff against one another.

Reps. CJ McCormick, D-Bethel, and Neal Foster, D-Nome, joined Edgmon in opposing the Rules Committee’s version of the bill. Those three members represent key votes in the 23-member Republican-led House majority caucus.

Rules Committee chair Rep. Craig Johnson, an Anchorage Republican, encouraged lawmakers to allow debate to go forward. Johnson argued it was at least worth talking through the merits of the bill.

“A lot of stuff dies with this vote today,” Johnson said. “So I ask you to search your soul. Are we better off surrendering? Or are we better off at least vetting it, getting our positions known? And the will of the body’s the will of the body.”

The debate comes as school districts across the state brace for significant cuts.

Administrators in Fairbanks recently recommend closing two schools and have identified two more as candidates for possible closure. Fairbanks Education Association President Danette Peterson told the Senate Education Committee last week that nearly flat funding since 2017 is pushing up pupil-teacher ratios.

“Just a couple of years ago, we closed three schools, and I know how difficult that was for our community,” she told the committee in a Feb. 14 hearing. “Our PTR is going up to rates that I believe are ridiculous. Last year when I was at Hutchison teaching, I had a (literature) class of 39 in a room that was designed for 24.”

The $300-per-student increase included in the House bill would be less than the state provided in one-time funding last year, even after a veto from Gov. Mike Dunleavy cut the amount in half.

Johnson, the House Rules chair, said he was open to debate on larger increases.

The House is scheduled to take up the education bill for further debate and discussion at 11 a.m. Tuesday.

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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