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Task force members clash on education funding

Posted: January 2, 2014 - 1:13am

JUNEAU — A legislative task force clashed Tuesday over funding as they worked on a blueprint for addressing education in Alaska.

Members of the House Task Force on Sustainable Education, working on a draft presentation during a teleconferenced meeting, agreed with language stating that to provide for a sustainable future in Alaska, state spending levels must to be reduced and a portion of revenue set aside for future generations. The disagreement came over whether to include proposed language that, in the current budget environment, state education funding needs to be reduced as well.

Brad Keithley, a consultant who works on oil, gas and fiscal policy issues, supported the statement, saying society has gotten the message that it can go to the state and “get all their problems solved,” but he said that needs to stop. The public needs to recognize the state is spending itself off a fiscal cliff, he said.

But Andrew Halcro, a former state legislator and current president of the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce, vehemently disagreed, arguing that such a statement “makes everything we’re doing here irrelevant.”

He said the panel hasn’t even really addressed what an adequate funding level is and said it makes no sense to talk about cutting spending when the panel hasn’t looked into gains the state might realize from additional investments in areas like pre-kindergarten. He said he was not suggesting that more money will fix the problems facing Alaska’s public school system and said he shares fellow members’ concerns with how money is being used.

“But you can’t say we’re here to improve education and show up at the table with a predetermined outcome,” he said. “I don’t know how that benefits education.”

The language was revised during the meeting to say the public should be made aware that education spending is not sustainable. Halcro was the only member to vote against it.

The task force, in working on the draft, also discussed development of an overall state education plan and the need for new ways of thinking and flexibility in education delivery, including analyzing the possible benefits of school consolidation and shared services, increasing the number of residential schools and investing in technology. It also talked about studying the cost of new state standards and data sharing among agencies.

Halcro said teachers in a recent survey named outside influences, such as drugs and alcohol in the community, domestic violence and English as a second language, as some of the biggest inhibitors to learning. He said those things affect a student as much as the quality of the teacher or the curriculum and that kind of data needs to be looked at along with things like test scores.

Member David Nees said his belief as an educator is that by giving a child an education, you give him an opportunity to escape his social situation.

The panel was created by a House resolution last April and charged with “examining the efficiency and effectiveness of public education delivery.” It faced a Wednesday deadline for submitting its recommendations and findings to the governor, Legislature and state education department. The panel is scheduled to expire Jan. 1, 2015.

The panel includes three lawmakers, Republican Reps. Tammie Wilson, Lynn Gattis and Charisse Millett. The resolution setting out the task force also called for one member representing a regional Native corporation, in this case, Andy Baker; two educators, Jerry Covey and Nees; and two representatives of the business community, Halcro and Keithley. Wilson and Gattis are co-chairs.

Wilson is chair of the House Finance subcommittee on education while Gattis chairs the House Education Committee. Wilson said both would continue work during the upcoming session on issues raised by the task force.

School funding has been a hot-button issue, with school districts saying they need more money and some lawmakers, eager for improvements in the public school system, seeking greater accountability for how districts are spending their money. The governor has supported targeted funding for things like energy costs and resisted calls by House Democrats and some other legislators who have been lobbying for an increase in the per-pupil spending formula.

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