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Schools struggle to define state's demands for accountability

Some schools may need greater help than the more successful ones, Sitka educator says

Posted: February 22, 2012 - 1:05am

School advocates are wondering how they can persuade state leaders that improving education takes more money.

They’re facing a big hurdle, as some of those reluctant to provide the increased funding say they want schools to be more accountable.

The per-student funding known as the Basic Student Allotment (BSA) is provided to every school based on a long-standing formula.

Providing increased funding, even to help cover inflation, is the “ultimate giveaway” said Gov. Sean Parnell in a statement about accountability that’s been echoed by House Republican leaders.

School supporters say the state’s schools are improving, and they’re surprised at the accountability demand following Parnell’s submission of a budget that flat-funds education for next year.

“I would say I’m a bit baffled when they say ‘we want to see more accountability,’” said Lon Garrison, president of the Association of Alaska School Boards.

He said schools are improving and questioned the use of an undefined standard to deny funding.

Garrison, who is also president of the Sitka school board, said the accountability argument seemed to come up as a justification for less funding.

Juneau school board President Sally Saddler, who has been following education funding closely in the Legislature, echoed his concerns.

“It’s just not clear to me what it is we’re trying to shoot for that would make them happy,” she said of requests for more accountability.

Garrison questioned what would happen under an accountability mandate to schools that failed to meet standards. Would they lose funding? he asked.

“If you use funding as a punitive measure because a school had not met a standard, I don’t think you are doing the right thing,” he said.

Schools face a variety of challenges, with some districts having poverty or English as a second language rates well above statewide averages.

“They need resources, they need help, they may need to have folks who can come in and help” them do a better job of meeting the standards, he said.

House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, said districts have been told what is needed.

“I think the Legislature has been asking the K-12 districts to improve the graduation rate,” he said.

Schools have been improving, said Carl Rose, executive director of the Association of Alaska School Boards, which has taken the lead on school funding on behalf of its member districts

It’s been difficult to make that case he said.

“Unfortunately the numbers we generate from the Department of Education are not being accepted by the legislators and the governor,” Rose said.

Chenault agreed improvements were being made.

“If you talk to a number of schools, they can tell you they’ve improved,” he said.

The difficulty with accountability, he said was how to reward those schools for improvements.

It would be difficult to withhold money from schools that hadn’t improved, because that would likely result in increasing disparity among districts.

“That’s not fair,” he said, and would likely result in another lawsuit like the recently settled “Moore” case.

Rep. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, said that flat-funding schools meant a decrease when inflation is considered and threatens improvements that have already begun to show results.

“It pulls the rug out from underneath them when they’re starting to see the effects of changes they’ve made,” she said.

That’s what’s happening in Juneau, said Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau.

She said improvements in Juneau and elsewhere have resulted in better test scores and graduation rates. That information is being provided to legislators and is building support for an increase in the House she said. An increase already passed the Senate.

The problem, she said, may be in convincing Parnell.

“We’re very far from the governor,” she said. “When the governor keeps calling education ‘the ultimate giveaway, we’re light years away,” she said.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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