Alaska lawmakers consider boosting education funding, with no agreement on its size

Jan. 27 — JUNE — Education advocates are calling for an increase of at least 14% in the per-pupil formula used to calculate funding for K-12 education, but Alaska lawmakers have yet to agree on the exact size of the increase.

At Senate Education Committee meetings held in the second week of the legislative sessions, members of the Senate’s bipartisan majority appeared open to a sizeable increase in the Basic Student Allowance formula, but have yet to introduce legislation to such effect. At the same time, the Republicans who control the majority in the House have signaled that they are interested in seeking a more modest funding increase.

From 2011 to 2022, the basic student allowance increased less than 5%, while the Alaska Urban Consumer Price Index increased 24.6%.

The Alaska School Boards Association urges lawmakers to consider an increase of at least $860 to the $5,960 per student amount. That number, recommended by the Anchorage School District and unanimously adopted by association delegates last year, represents inflation between 2017 and 2022, and would translate to an increase of approximately 14% over the current rate of funding per student. But the association’s director, Lon Garrison, said Wednesday that number is already insufficient to account for inflation, given continued rising costs.

“Actually, there is a much larger increase,” Garrison said. Still, he said that number is a good starting point for lawmakers as they begin the process of deliberating a funding increase, hoping to finalize the legislation in the coming months.

“At least there is a point that we can talk about. It will be a debate and a negotiation,” Garrison said. “We’re going to advocate where we started, but really, we know this is going to be a discussion.”

Rep. Justin Ruffridge, a freshman Republican from Soldotna named co-chairman of the House Education Committee, said funding for schools will be one of the committee’s focuses this year, but pegged the number for a possible BSA increase. between $250 and $750, much more. below what most educators see as the bare minimum. The House Education Committee, which will also be co-chaired by Rep. Jamie Allard, R-Eagle River, has yet to meet since the legislative session began earlier this month.

Ruffridge said her goal is to keep an open mind before hearing from school administrators, teachers and interest groups, who will be speaking to lawmakers in the coming weeks about the challenges they face.

“If you put a number in there directly, then all of a sudden you’ve essentially started negotiations. And that’s not really the right way to do this. The right way is to really put your work in and find out, well, where is the money going? How did we get to this place?” Ruffridge said. “There’s a lot of work to be done before you can fully answer that question.”

Conservatives are also considering linking education funding more closely to student achievement. Alaskan children have scored lower on reading and math tests than children in other states, and some conservative lawmakers have argued that this is because public school funds are not used effectively. But teachers and education advocates have said poor student achievement can be attributed to continued flat funding for education, which has made it difficult to provide students with the conditions to succeed.

House Speaker Cathy Tilton, a Wasilla Republican, said at a news conference earlier this month that she would consider input from the right-wing Alaska Policy Forum in deciding education policy. That group, which in the past has advocated cuts in spending on state services, argued in a recent report that public schools lack accountability.

Senate Chairman Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, said his caucus has been discussing the need for increased funding for education, but also the need to “set up window boxes” to ensure funds are used in particular ways. about others.

“I think it’s a bit problematic to set criteria like that,” said Stevens, a longtime university professor.

Lisa Parady, director of the Alaska Council of School Administrators, told the Senate Education Committee that educators “are not afraid to be held accountable” but without a substantial increase in funding, they will continue to struggle to meet basic needs. of the students.

“I really want to make it clear that we’re not asking for whipped cream or ice cream on top of the pie. We’re just asking for crust, or maybe the filling,” Parady said.

Parady said his organization surveyed school superintendents to see what increase per student they would need “to be complete during flat funding years.” Superintendents responded with numbers ranging from 14% to 18%, Parady said.

“This increase, whoever it is, will only help them cover their current operating costs,” Parady said. “There’s been this idea that if we increase the BSA then we’ll have money available to do a lot of additional things. But the truth is that we’re going to start making whole districts and give them stability so that we can then move on from there.”

During Senate Education hearings, lawmakers were inundated with examples of districts struggling to keep schools open, teachers paid, buildings warm and lunches served.

Sarah Sledge, director of the Coalition for Equity in Education, said districts in rural Alaska are already dealing with or preparing for budget shortfalls due to lack of increases in education funding for five years. Between 2022 and 2023 alone, costs for fuel, utilities and construction rose significantly, in some districts by more than 40%, she said.

“These are things that they have to pay for to provide education for our children,” he said.

Sledge and Parady said schools’ needs to cover rising fixed costs like utility and maintenance bills are affecting their ability to hire educators and keep support staff like librarians and cafeteria workers.

Sen. Jesse Bjorkman, a Nikiski Republican who is also a high school teacher, expressed concern that even a 16% increase in school funding would not allow schools to fully fund career and technical education programs. , world language classes and counseling services. , librarians, nurses, school lunch programs, and custodial services.

“We’ve seen cuts in the ability of programs to move forward which is really why a lot of kids are happy to get up and go to school every day. So what it’s telling us is if we agree to increase the BSA by about 16%, that just stops the bleeding in Alaska schools and really prevents schools from having to cut back,” Bjorkman said after Parady addressed the education committee. “If we really want to get back to where we were 10 years ago, with workforce development training and all the educational opportunities that were available at that time, we have to make a significant investment on top of that amount, right?” So? ?”

Some education advocates are already pushing for an increase above $1,000, to more accurately reflect inflation accumulated since 2017. At an education rally in Juneau on Monday, some protesters carried signs calling for an increase of $1,086.

“I’m not ready to come up with a number yet,” said Rep. Rebecca Himschoot, an independent and teacher from Sitka who is a member of the House minority. “The conversation is often about what we don’t have because the BSA hasn’t increased, and that’s important to know. I’d like to shift that conversation to what we could have if we funded the BSA in a strong way.”