Alaska senators approve permanent increase to public school funding, with House support in question
The House earlier failed to fund a similar increase after dispute over whether to use savings to pay for it
Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer, turns away from Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, after being told that one of her amendments to Senate Bill 52 is out of order. At left is Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)
Alaska’s public schools will receive their largest-ever funding increase if the Alaska House and Gov. Mike Dunleavy agree with a bill passed Thursday by the state Senate.
In a 16-3 vote on Thursday, the chamber approved Senate Bill 52, which permanently increases the state’s per-student funding formula, known as the base student allocation, by $175 million per year.
The state, the main source for public-school funding in Alaska, currently spends about $1.2 billion per year on the formula.
“This is a historic day. We just passed the largest base student allocation funding increase in state history,” said Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage.
“And this was the top priority for the Senate majority. We haven’t had an increase in the base student allocation, in any significant amount, in the last seven years,” he said.
School districts across Alaska have for months requested a funding increase, saying that rising inflation and the exhaustion of federal COVID-19 relief money have left them at a fiscal cliff.
The state’s per-student funding formula is currently worth $5,930 and would increase to $5,960 under Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s budget. The Senate bill would increase it another $680, to $6,640. If the BSA had matched inflation since 2011, it would have been more than $7,200 per student. The amounts school districts receive are actually higher, since the formula is adjusted based on various factors, including school sizes and the number of students with special needs.
Both the state House and Senate have discussed temporary, one-time increases of $680 per student, and the Senate has included that increase in its proposed state operating budget for the coming year, but a budget bill wouldn’t make a permanent increase.
Senate Bill 52 would permanently increase funding, which is what makes it so important, senators said.
Because the increase would be permanent, school districts would be able to rely on it when setting future budgets, said Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel.
“I think it’s critical that we give stability to the school boards and address the BSA increase. That would send a message to the school boards, the teachers, the students,” he said.
The bill’s fate in the state House isn’t certain.
A companion bill has yet to leave the House Finance Committee, and an attempt to include $175 million in the House’s proposed budget failed when lawmakers balked at funding it from the state’s principal savings account, the Constitutional Budget Reserve.
The lone votes against the proposal came from Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer, and Sen. Robert Myers, R-North Pole. Sen. Mike Shower, R-Wasilla, was excused absent.
Hughes said she doesn’t oppose the idea of increased school funding but wants more assurance that the additional funding will increase student and school performance.
She and Myers offered several amendments to the bill, but all were voted down.
“I believe we are passing by an opportunity that was presented to us, and I’m distraught about that,” Hughes said. “Today, my ‘no’ vote is to signal to the other body that this bill needs some work.”
Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, noted Hughes’ comments and said that passage of the bill doesn’t mean legislators’ work is over.
“This is a stopgap measure. This isn’t the final solution,” he said.
Sen. James Kaufman, R-Anchorage, offered a similar perspective.
“It’s becoming obvious that just to keep the system running, we have to provide funding. You can’t improve a process if it’s in a state of critical failure,” he said.
The bill was strictly limited to funding. Twice, Hughes attempted to amend it to include measures that would have limited the rights of transgender students to use the bathrooms and locker rooms that align with their gender identities.
Those amendments were ruled out of order by Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, and his ruling was upheld by a majority vote of the Senate.
“I feel like the ruling of the chair was a bit on shaky ground,” Hughes said.
Wielechowski disagreed. He called Hughes’ ideas “completely irrelevant to that bill.”
No House hearings have yet been scheduled for Senate Bill 52. The legislative session is slated to end on Wednesday.
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