JUNEAU - The Alaska House on Monday overwhelmingly approved a $230 million increase in education spending over the next three years under a plan that some describe as historic and others warn can't be sustained.
Lawmakers, following the recommendations of this summer's Legislative Education Funding Task Force, agreed to add money to per-pupil spending, students with intensive needs, pupil transportation and a formula used to balance out the differing costs between urban and rural areas.
"This year it all comes together and this bill is a linchpin," said Anchorage Republican Rep. Mike Hawker, chairman of the bipartisan and bicameral task force. "This will provide a stable basis for three years so we can focus on what the classroom really needs."
Hawker said the increases would contribute to a 95 percent increase in overall school funding since 2002 and allow lawmakers to go back to their districts "with great pride and say we have done the right thing in funding our school system."
Even so, lawmakers had plenty of misgivings despite the 32-5 vote to pass the measure.
"I hope we're not building a house we can't afford to pay the mortgage on, said Rep. Ralph Samuels, R-Anchorage, who voted for the measure but questioned whether the spending could be sustained in the face of declining oil production.
Fairbanks Republican Rep. Mike Kelly, who voted against the measure, described the task force he sat on as the "Great Committee of Yes."
"It was about as kumbaya a thing as I've been in since the '60s but the sustainability worries me and it's not going to address anything structurally," said Kelly.
Rep. Wes Keller, R-Wasilla, said he could not support the measure because of its three-year time frame. Problems like high dropout rates and low proficiency scores need a funding bill to jump start the debate each year, he said.
"Conversations about education policy need to be inextricably linked to a discussion of education funding," said Keller.
Task force member Reggie Joule, D-Kotzebue, praised the legislation and reminded the House that the last major change to education funding was a decade ago. That measure was fiercely contested and billed at the time as a short-term fix.
"Sometimes things take way too long in this building to pass but it's here today," said Joule.
The current measure sailed through the House without much of a contest, its passage no doubt eased by consensus building over the summer and a growing multibillion dollar budget surplus.
Despite the cost and complexity of the measure, only one amendment was offered. Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, tried to raise the base student allocation, currently $5,380 per pupil, by $200 as proposed by Gov. Sarah Palin. The task force recommended a minimum increase of $100.
Hawker warned members that the amendment could jeopardize the fragile compromise that went into building the entire school funding package.
But Anchorage Democrat Rep. Harry Crawford said lawmakers should seize the moment when the state is flush with money to move education forward, otherwise he said, the bill "just holds the line."
Kotzebue Democrat Rep. Mary Nelson said she would oppose the amendment pointing out that the added increase would boost spending by $63 million over the next three years.
"My fear is that when we put money in one area of the state that means there's not money for other areas," she said.
The amendment failed 10-27.
The lone public member of the task force, Association of Alaska School Boards executive director Carl Rose, watched the debate from the gallery.
"This is a historic event in public K-12 education," Rose said later. "This is a major positive move to rectify and stabilize the foundation formula. This is huge."
The bill is expected to move quickly through the Senate as well.
"I expect it will be well received in the Senate and we will get education funding passed early as promised," said Senate Finance Committee Co-Chairman Bert Stedman, R-Sitka.
Besides the boost to the regular base student allocation, the bill increases funding for intensive needs students from five times the base student allocation to nine times the BSA in 2009 to 13 times the BSA in 2011.
The bill also phases in 50 percent of the Institute of Social and Economic Research report's recommendation for district cost factors in 2009 with the remaining 50 percent implemented over the next four years.
The measure would boost education spending by $118 million in the coming fiscal year. In the five years it would take to fully implement the plan, it would result in a total increase of $257 million dollars for the state's 54 public school districts.
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