A participant in a pro-education rally holds up a sign in front of the Alaska State Capitol on Monday night, Jan. 23, 2023. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)
In a series of hearings at the Capitol, teachers, administrators and concerned parents are making the case for a major increase in Alaska’s per-student funding and for other legislation that they say will help the state’s public schools.
The hearings come as the Senate Education Committee prepares to introduce legislation on the topic. The bills could be released to the public as soon as next week.
“I really want to emphasize that … (our) education foundation is cracking,” said Lisa Parady, executive director of the Alaska Council of School Administrators. “We’re in a very difficult environment across the country, and sometimes our problems in Alaska are worse than even the rest of the country.”
The Alaska Legislature hasn’t increased the public school funding formula — known as the base student allocation — since 2016 but has intermittently approved one-time funding increases. Those increases (and subsequent COVID relief money) have run out, leaving districts with fewer ways to cope with inflation-driven cost increases. Many have cut services and staffing, increasing the number of students in each classroom.
The Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage concluded that by 2019, even though Alaska pays more than any other state on a per-student basis, the cost of living here is so high that once that factor is included, public schools here received less money than the national average.
Backers of public schools are mounting a major push to fix the problem and have the support of many legislators, but they’ll be competing with the Permanent Fund dividend to make the fixes they want.
In his initial December budget proposal, Gov. Mike Dunleavy proposed no increase to school funding but did include a super-sized dividend of almost $4,000 per person, based on a formula that remains in state law but that has not been followed since 2015.
Barring an unexpected surge in the price of oil — which would lift state revenue — spending more money on schools would require significant immediate tax increases or spending less money on something else, and the multibillion-dollar cost of the dividend is by far the largest piece of the budget.
“I really want to be clear that we’re not asking for whipped cream or ice cream on top of the pie. We’re just asking for crust, you know, or the filling at this point,” Parady said.
Sarah Sledge, executive director of the Coalition for Education Equity, said the backlog of major maintenance projects at public schools now exceeds $200 million. In a presentation to the Senate Education Committee, she showed a disused school building whose walls had bowed outward because of excessive snow loads.
The Association of Alaska School Boards, which represents local school districts, told the education committee that it supports a minimum increase to the BSA of $860 per student. The current amount is $5,930.
In a Monday rally outside the Capitol, educators called for an increase of more than $1,000 per student. If the 2011 BSA had simply been adjusted for modern inflation, it would be more than $7,200 per student.
Based on the number of students enrolled in Alaska’s K-12 schools, a $1,000 per-student increase would cost more than $130 million per year.
That’s roughly equivalent to $205 subtracted from the Permanent Fund dividend, based on the number of recipients in 2022.
The education committee is scheduled to take additional testimony from rural experts on Friday and will seek public testimony early next week.
Sen. Löki Tobin, D-Anchorage and chair of the education committee, said she expects to introduce new education legislation next week in response to that testimony.
She said it isn’t clear whether there will be one bill or a collection of them, but it’s expected that legislation to increase per-student funding will be included.
“Certainly the BSA bill is going to be one of them, whenever that comes to fruition,” said Sen. Jesse Bjorkman, R-Nikiski.
The hearings this week and next will decide what’s included in legislation crafted and sponsored by the education committee.
“We want to make sure that on the front end, we clearly define the problem. I don’t want to come up with solutions that are looking for a problem to solve,” Bjorkman said.
In addition to being a member of the education committee, Bjorkman has 14 years of experience teaching middle school and high school on the Kenai Peninsula.
He said he’s personally seen how budget cuts have hurt schools’ ability to teach career and technical education classes, keeping students from job training.
“The decline in the number of educators that we’ve had, it’s harder and harder to make good connections with kids, and help them learn on that real, tangible level,” he said.
Kids are eager to learn, he said, but they need to be taught by teachers they trust, and that takes teachers who are willing to stay at schools and not leave after a few years.
“It just takes time,” he said.
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