Charter school funding in danger

Lawmakers mull changes to state's education budget

Posted: Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Alaska's handful of small charter schools stand to lose a quarter of a million dollars in crucial funding next year.

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Alaska provides less money to operate charter schools with fewer than 150 students than it does for other schools.

Those affected include the Juneau Community Charter School. For Juneau's 66 students, the money can make a big difference. Already parents chip in for everything from classroom help to janitorial duties, said Brenda Taylor, one of the parents who manage the school.

"We chose not to pay for lunchtime and recess aides. Those are jobs parents can do for us," she said. "We can use that money to pay for extra art teachers and extra music teachers."

It's unclear how much the Juneau charter school will lose next year if small-charter school funding isn't restored.

But this year, it amounted to $40,000 out of the school's $400,000 budget, said Tim Blust, parent of a fourth-grader.

Under the state's school funding formula, charter schools with fewer than 150 students are allocated money as if they were the largest school in the district. For Juneau, that means the little elementary school will be supported as if it had the efficiencies of the much larger Juneau-Douglas High School.

In past years a special legislative appropriation made up some of the difference.

Juneau parents have lobbied for the funding on behalf of all the state's small charter schools, which this year include schools in Fairbanks, Nome, Bethel and Homer, in addition to Juneau. They've found legislators reluctant to give extra money, however.

"The 150-student level is there for a reason, for efficiency purposes," said Rep. Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, the Finance Committee co-chairman.

Charter school parents may value the personal attention their children get, but the state shouldn't subsidize it, said Meyer and others.

"The statute says before you have a charter school you are supposed to have over 150 students," he said. "Now some of these folks still want to do the charter school even though they don't have 150."

"It's very inefficient for the school district to have several charter schools around," he said.

Juneau's charter school is intentionally kept small for those students who thrive in that kind of environment.

The practice found little sympathy from Rep. Mike Chenault, a Nikiski Republican who co-chairs the House Finance Committee.

"I have three kids in public schools, and I would love them to be in smaller class sizes also," he said. Chenault said he didn't want to spend extra so that a few children could benefit.

"I'm very comfortable with the education that my children are getting in public school," he said.

It's not a fair comparison, said Juneau charter parent Harriet Milks.

"Education is not, and shouldn't be, a one-size-fits-all proposition, especially in Alaska," she said.

Rep. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, said he supported charter schools and would like to see more of them, despite his vote against extra funding.

"I'm a huge fan of charter schools," he said, but "I'd like to keep some of these issues out there so we have more allies on making the systemic fixes."

Parent Brenda Taylor said she agreed with the intent, and would prefer a formula that didn't force small schools to constantly get special appropriations.

"A long-term solution would be excellent. It's completely what we want to have," she said.

The vote to add the extra $250,000 failed along party lines, with Democrats voting for the funding and Republicans against.

Juneau Charter School parents said they would try to resurrect the funding in the Senate.

• Pat Forgey can be reached at patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.



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