JUNEAU — A major education funding package is unlikely to gain traction in the Alaska Legislature during the last three weeks of the session despite complaints from Republicans and Democrats about how much the state spends on education, according to the chairs of the House and Senate Education committees.
While there has been plenty of debate over proposed constitutional amendments that would allow for public funds to be used for religious and private schools, none of the education legislation that has momentum addresses the formula for calculating the per-student cost of education, known as the base student allocation, or BSA.
Alaska spends more per-capita per student than any other state in the nation, but its graduation rate is 69 percent. The governor and Republican legislative leaders have supported funding for specific, targeted needs — like increased energy costs — but resisted automatic formulaic increases. Some also want greater accountability for how money the districts are getting now is being spent, and say the BSA only reflects a portion of the support the state is providing for the public education system.
The BSA was last increased in fiscal year 2011, according to a Legislative Research memo requested by Rep. Les Gara and released earlier this year. Democrats in recent years have helped lead a push to inflation-proof the BSA, which helps pay for teacher salaries and benefits. They argue flat-funding the BSA is precipitating teacher and counselor layoffs threatened by school districts, and could be detrimental to Alaska’s children in the long run.
House and Senate Democrats organized a public hearing on education Monday.
“You do not move education forward by laying off the people who teach our children,” Gara, D-Anchorage, said during a news conference. Gara has proposed a bill that would adjust the BSA to account for inflation, but it has yet to be heard in committee.
Sen. Gary Stevens, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said support for additional BSA funding has been up and down during his 13 years in the legislature. This year, he believes any money added toward K-12 education will be outside the BSA.
Stevens’ House counterpart, Rep. Lynn Gattis, doesn’t believe any new bills dealing with education funding will be proposed before the end of the session April 14, but added that she’s a freshman and doesn’t have the experience other legislators have.
But the Wasilla Republican believes it’s unfair to say that this Legislature hasn’t attempted to fund education in the classroom.
She argues that because the Legislature is addressing specific costs associated with education, like student transportation, districts don’t have to allocate BSA funds toward those expenses. School choice, changes to tenure to save on administrative costs and coordinating when teachers are laid off were three examples cited by the House Education chair as other bills that lawmakers are looking at.
The underlying problem is that the state spends too much money on education, and that Juneau needs to start thinking outside the box to tighten its belt, Gattis says.
“Folks are squawking back home, all over Alaska that we spend too much money for what we get,” she said. “If we’re not going to fund education in the manner that some groups think we should, than we have to do something.”
But a lot of those costs are derived from Alaska’s geography and location, according to Stevens.
“It’s no wonder that education (cost) is higher here than it is many places,” Stevens said. “We’re isolated, we’re a long ways away, our cost of living is higher, you hire a teacher to live in a village, you know, it’s much more expensive.