Alaska should spend millions of dollars more a year to beef up education and better prepare students for a new high school graduation exam, according to a new study.
The Education Funding Task Force appointed by the governor in December released a report recommending the state spend $100 million more per year on schools by 2006.
Legislative leaders, however, are not expected to accept the panel's suggestions easily. The state already spends about $660 million annually on education funding, which tops $1 billion when local and federal contributions are included.
The task force said schools need the extra money to improve student performance and to help them pass a graduation exam. Starting next year, high school seniors will be required to pass the test, which is based on state standards for reading, writing and math. The test has raised concerns because many students who took it last year failed some portions. If seniors in 2002 do not pass the test, they will not receive a high school diploma.
The task force said many students may fall short of meeting the higher academic standards because the state has underfunded education for the past decade.
"We found that textbooks were lacking in certain areas. We found teacher salaries were lacking in certain areas," said Roger Chan, vice president of the oilfield service corporation VECO and a member of the 11-member panel, which included representatives from businesses, unions and education associations.
"We tried to figure out what we needed to get us from where we are today to where we need to be tomorrow to get a better education for our kids," said Chan.
Anchorage Republican Rep. Con Bunde, who heads the House Special Committee on Education, gave the report a cool reception.
Bunde said the state has appropriated at least $50 million in extra funds for education in recent years and many kids still can't pass a basic competency test in reading, writing and math.
"To blindly put more money into a program that isn't producing the results that we think is best for the state seems inappropriate," Bunde said.
The funding task force recommended the Legislature appropriate the additional money over five years and funnel most of it through the school funding formula to help cover the cost of new instructional materials, increases in teacher salaries, changes to curriculum to meet state standards, building maintenance and additional help for special needs students and kids at risk of failing the exam.
The report also recommended an additional $7 million outside the school funding formula to reward exemplary schools and to assist low-performing schools. The panel also wants the Legislature to pay an extra $800,000 to assume up to $10,000 of some teachers' student loans.
The group said the state needs to provide more incentives to attract and keep teachers, citing a teacher shortage here and across the country as a major concern.
"We don't want that trend to continue. We want to reverse that trend," said Bob Weinstein, mayor of the city of Ketchikan and chairman of the task force.
The panel said schools unable to show student improvement over time should be denied the extra funding.
The task force will submit the report to the state board of education and the governor for approval. It hopes to see legislation introduced this session to enact the recommendations.
Kathy Dye can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.