With songs and speeches, Alaskans rally in Juneau to call for more funding for education

a Juneau educational rally
Students, parents and teachers hold signs calling for more funding for education outside the Alaska State Capitol on Jan. 23, 2023. (Katie Anastas/KTOO)

Educators, students and parents gathered on the steps of the Alaska State Capitol Monday night to call for more funding for education.

Tom Klaameyer is president of NEA-Alaska, a state union for public school employees. He said state funding is at the root of the deadlock in negotiations with teachers’ unions across the state.

“Districts want to hire the best and brightest for their students,” he told the crowd. “They want to provide strong health care benefits and they don’t want to cut programs or close schools. But they are caught between the sword and the BSA.”

The BSA, or basic student allocation, is the amount of money per student that school districts receive from the state. It has not increased substantially since 2017. Last year, the state approved a $30 increase that will take effect in July. But many school leaders say it’s not enough to keep up with rising inflation.

The Juneau teachers union declared deadlock in its negotiations with the district last month. Superintendent Bridget Weiss said the $30 raise isn’t enough to give teachers the contract they deserve.

a woman with a microphone
Juneau School District Superintendent Bridget Weiss speaks at a rally for education funding on Jan. 23, 2023. (Katie Anastas/KTOO)

“If we committed the $243,000 that we would get from that $30 BSA just to teacher salaries and nothing else, that would mean a 0.25% increase every year for each of the next three years,” he said. “It’s inappropriate.”

Governor Mike Dunleavy has proposed keeping the BSA at $5,960 next year. The Alaska School Boards Association is asking for an increase of at least $860.

“We are meeting ever greater needs with fewer resources every day,” Weiss said. “When is the legislature held accountable for putting us in this impossible situation by not fully funding one of the most vital aspects of our Alaskan communities?”

Some rally attendees held signs calling for a BSA increase of $1,086.

But that’s not the only challenge lawmakers are considering this session. Juneau Sen. Jesse Kiehl introduced a bill to give teachers the option to pay a pension, which he said would help with teacher retention.

“That’s a lot of money,” Kiehl said, referring to an increase of $1,086. “That’s about $220 million. Are our children worth it? I bet they are. I have your first $15 or $20 million, because pensions cost less than the system we have today for retirement.”

Students like Dzantik’i Heeni eighth grader Inde Eckerson are experiencing firsthand the statewide teacher shortage. She said that large classes are difficult for teachers and distracting for students.

“I think our classes are too full. We have too many people,” she said. “I mean, it’s fun, but it gets a little too crazy and then you can’t really learn.”

Several freshman lawmakers joined rally organizers on the capitol steps. Juneau Rep. Sara Hannan highlighted three legislators who left teaching jobs to come to Juneau: Rep. Maxine Dibert of Fairbanks, Rep. Rebecca Himschoot of Sitka and Sen. Jesse Bjorkman of Nikiski.

“We have dozens of new colleagues working with us who have campaigned on this issue,” Hannan said.

The rally ended with a song led by Dzantik’i Heeni’s music teacher, Mike Bucy.

“Education built the nation,” he sang. “Increase the base allocation of students. Pass this legislative test and give our children the best.”

Bucy said she is hopeful that the 33rd Legislature will substantially increase school funding this year, and that reading and math scores will rise along with that.

a school funding protester
Educators, students, and parents rallied in front of the Alaska State Capitol on January 23, 2023 to call for an increase in the basic student allowance. (Katie Anastas/KTOO)