House Democratic minority lawmakers rolled out a bill Wednesday that would increase the Base Student Allocation for school districts and index future increases to inflation, but Republicans do not sound ready to embrace the proposal.
The BSA, which has not been raised since 2010, is a critical part of the education funding formula in Alaska. House Bill 95 would raise it to keep up with increases in the Consumer Price Index for the Anchorage metropolitan area since 2011. It would rise along with CPI increases in subsequent years as well, starting July 1, 2014.
Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, who introduced the bill, has eight of his nine fellow House minority caucus members as cosponsors, including Minority Leader Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau.
“Our bill says we should annually adjust education funding for inflation so that the same dollars go into the classroom and we don’t continue the cycle of cuts to those people who are teaching our children,” said Gara, who has introduced bills to raise the BSA in the past.
Gara cited significant layoffs and growing class sizes in school districts around the state, including the Juneau School District. He attributed those actions to insufficient school funding and warned that unless the BSA is raised to keep pace with inflation, they will be a “blueprint” for the rest of the state.
Under H.B. 95, the BSA would rise by $286, going from $5,680 per student to $5,966.
Ron Fuhrer, president of the National Education Association of Alaska, said he had hoped for a larger increase, but called the bill “movement in the right direction.”
“We would be supportive,” said Fuhrer, whose union boasts nearly 13,000 teachers and educational staff among its membership. He explained the NEA-Alaska’s stance, arguing, “The BSA increase is important because it provides school districts to be able to count on what it is that they have, the resources that they have. We’ve been seeing districts now returning back to writing pink slips because they’re guessing at what they may have.”
JSD Superintendent Glenn Gelbrich said that he had not read H.B. 95 and could not comment on it specifically.
But of a BSA increase, Gelbrich said, “Obviously, we would welcome that.”
The BSA has been increased eight times since it took effect in 1998, according to a recent Legislative Research Services memorandum released by Gara’s office.
Gara estimated school districts have missed out on as much as $60 million to $70 million in total due to the lack of a BSA increase since fiscal year 2011. He said lawmakers should look to the capital budget and find the funds for increased education spending.
“If you’re not educating your children so that they can be productive members of an economy, so they can succeed, I think you’re failing a whole generation when there are other places we can save money,” said Gara. “There are a lot of projects in and around this building that are going to have to take a back seat to education.”
During a Jan. 17 press conference, Republican Gov. Sean Parnell responded to a question on whether he would consider approving a BSA increase by saying he has “drawn very few lines in the sand.”
“Everything’s open for discussion,” Parnell said at the time. “But I do have some principles there with respect to education funding, and that is that it’s got to deliver results for our kids and parents.”
Parnell went on to note that education funding has increased dramatically in recent years.
“Over the last five years, we have had record increases in education funding,” Parnell asserted. “Hundreds of millions of extra dollars that were not funded before are now being funded on an annual basis, with graduation rates at just below 70 percent. That is not a passing grade. We can do better. Is it going to take more money? Yes. No question. But that money needs to buy results for our kids and our families, and that’s what we’ll be focused on.”
That point was echoed by House Majority Leader Lance Pruitt, R-Anchorage, on Wednesday.
“We have not been ‘flat-funding,’” Pruitt said, addressing a common criticism of Republicans’ handling of education funding that Gara brought up Wednesday as well. “While the BSA itself has stayed flat over the last couple of years, the Legislature has continued to invest in education.”
Pruitt pointed to last year’s one-time appropriation of $25 million for school systems out of the capital budget. Parnell’s FY14 budget proposal contains another one-time $25 million allocation for education.
“We have continued to put additional money into schools above and beyond the BSA,” said Pruitt, referring to a Legislative Finance analysis from last February, which concluded that “the inflation-adjusted BSA Equivalent has risen every year” from FY04 until then.
But Gara dismissed the funding increases, saying that increased funding for special education, rural schools and teacher pensions is not the same as money for classroom support.
“You will hear from the administration that we’ve put a lot of money into education, and that’s a little misleading,” Gara said.
Pruitt, like Parnell, sounded unenthusiastic about a BSA increase, although he also declined to explicitly rule one out.
“I think it’s probably too early to say what do we think it will be in the end,” said Pruitt of education funding for FY14.
The chairwoman of the House Education Committee, Rep. Lynn Gattis, R-Wasilla, said she is opposed to a BSA increase.
“That funding formula is so complicated,” Gattis said. “That’s probably where my negative is. … To change it now would really put a monkey wrench in planning for many school districts.”
Like Pruitt, Gattis noted that the Alaska State Legislature has been successfully funding education outside the formula.
“The BSA is one way to provide for funding for schools, but certainly outside of the BSA has been what the Legislature has been funding and doing as well,” said Gattis.
One House Republican who has publicly supported adjusting the BSA in the past, Juneau Rep. Cathy Muñoz, compared one-time funding outside the formula unfavorably with a BSA increase.
“One-time money is helpful, but it is limited in that it doesn’t allow districts really to plan for the future,” Muñoz said. “They have to assume that there will be a perennial debate over whether or not that one-time funding is approved, and money that was sufficient in one year, of course, may not be sufficient in another year.”
But Muñoz said she is concerned about the provision in H.B. 95 that would automatically adjust the BSA from year to year to reflect changes in CPI.
“My concern is that with the cumulative additions to the BSA every year, those ongoing costs are going to be added at a time when we’re already working on a deficit going into FY14,” said Muñoz.
“The concern that many of us have right now with a bill like this and tying it to the Consumer Price Index is that in an era of declining revenues, we’re going to fix something that automatically has increases tied into it,” said Pruitt. “One of the things we’ve done by keeping that level and continuing to put money into it the way that we have over the last few years is it still leaves that flexibility in the future to come back and address, ‘O.K., how do we handle with decreased revenues?’”
Pruitt made it clear he is unhappy with the way H.B. 95 was introduced. It was introduced Wednesday morning with nine Democratic lawmakers already on board with it, with no members of Pruitt’s majority caucus having signed on.
“The bill that’s out there is more of a political statement than truly addressing the issue. If there was really a desire to see this move forward … then you would probably see some majority members’ names on there,” Pruitt said. “Most of the majority didn’t even know that this bill was an option or out there until this morning when it was read across.”
Asked whether he hopes majority legislators will join the minority’s efforts to raise the BSA, Gara said, “I’m hopeful to start the discussion.”
Pruitt did not sound interested in that. He referred to H.B. 95 as “a campaign piece,” saying, “I don’t think this bill is really an opportunity to have a good discussion on where funding should be.”
Gara rejected Pruitt’s characterization.
“When was the last time Lance called me about one of his bills?” Gara asked rhetorically. He added, “I think it is time for us to come together. This is about academic achievement, not who gets credit. And if Rep. Pruitt wanted to introduce this bill under his name and asked me to withdraw my bill, I would do it in a heartbeat. I don’t care who gets credit.”
• Contact reporter Mark D. Miller at 586-1821 or at email@example.com.