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Governor addresses concerns over education funding in Alaska

Posted: February 22, 2012 - 1:02am

I sincerely regret that my word choice caused offense to Maureen Hall, a hard-working school nurse. Ms. Hall wrote an op-ed column expressing concern regarding education funding.

I very much appreciate all the teachers, staff, and administration that work every day to make our schools safe learning environments. I’ve seen firsthand the Title I teacher whose kindergartners quietly look at books for the first 15 minutes of class every morning because they need some settling time after the anguish some of these children suffer in their homes. My mother left home early every day to work as a teacher in the Anchorage School District for more than 25 years and I have a strong sense of the hard work and commitment that takes.

I chose not to include an increase to the Base Student Allocation (BSA) in the budget because I felt it was time for us to ask a common-sense question. Will the State of Alaska be like the federal government and automatically grow our programs, or will we budget more responsibly?

The $125 increase in the BSA that passed the state Senate will guarantee increased funding of about half a billion dollars in just six fiscal years. The increased BSA for this year gets added into the budget for the next year, while another BSA increase gets layered on top of that, and built into the following years on an ever-increasing basis.

Rather than automatically enlarging budgets with little ongoing scrutiny, I support funding annually justified education increases. For example, if energy costs are estimated to go up by $19.1 million in the next year, then let’s write a check for that amount. That way, the increasing expenditures are scrutinized every year, weighed in the balance with other appropriations, and we don’t leave a debt for our children and grandchildren to pay like our federal government.

Education spending has increased from $1.5 billion in 2005 to a projected $2.4 billion in 2013. These numbers do not include increases for debt service, school construction, major maintenance or the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development’s agency budget. And, my proposed budget includes $329 million for school districts’ retirement systems unfunded liability, a $76 million increase from the current year. This amount, that local taxpayers do not have to pay, is equivalent to more than a $300 BSA increase.

We may disagree on the means, but we all want the best education we can deliver for Alaska’s children. For that reason, I have supported increasing education funding at record levels across the years; sponsoring and passing Alaska Performance Scholarships and increasing amounts available for needs-based scholarships; funding escalating payments under the Teachers Retirement System; advocating for equity in rural and urban school construction; and resolving two long-standing pieces of education litigation to better deliver K-12 education.

Each year, Alaskans deserve to have a public discussion about cost increases and what their money is buying. The budget I proposed in December is the starting point for a discussion that continues until the budget is passed by the Legislature and signed into law.

• Parnell is the governor of Alaska.

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