New education funding scheme signed into law

Posted: Friday, March 28, 2008

Gov. Sarah Palin has quietly signed into law the biggest rewrite of the state's education funding system in a decade, despite hints that she might veto the package.

Palin had said last week the package was incomplete. Lawmakers responded with a threat to override any veto.

She signed the bill Thursday without ceremony, applauding lawmakers' efforts in a press release.

The legislation phases in increases to per-pupil spending, increases to students with special needs and adjustments to cost factors that compensate school districts outside Anchorage for their steeper costs.

It's expected to add an extra $180 million to school districts over the next 5 years.

Based on recommendations from this summer's Joint Legislative Education Task Force, the bill had a relatively smooth sail through the Legislature. School districts largely supported the measure despite qualms that they were being shortchanged in next year's budget.

District officials supported Palin's efforts to raise the base student allocation, currently $5,380 per pupil, by $200. But the Legislature stuck with the task force recommendation of $100.

In her press release Thursday, Palin applauded the "good work of legislators" and said the bill gives school districts some level of predictability.

"Our focus now shifts from 'How much are we going to spend on education?' to 'How can we be innovative and work to improve the outcome of our education system?' We now must concentrate on accountability for every dollar spent," said Palin.

Though some voiced surprise at the lack of a formal event, Palin's spokeswoman Sharon Leighow said the governor was busy meeting with lawmakers over last year's capital project vetoes and may have a ceremony later in the session if lawmakers follow through on their promise to add more money for schools in the capital budget.

Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage, who chaired the task force, said he personally doesn't care for ceremony "but there are a lot of legislators who gave a lot of time, sweat and blood to getting us to this point. Those folks deserve recognition for a successful effort well done - literally a landmark achievement."

Sen. Gary Wilken, R-Fairbanks, said while the legislation is a major step in education funding, schools are being pinched by the loss of the school improvement grants.

Lawmakers last year sank an extra $50 million into district cost factors and about $20 million into school improvement grants.

Since the grants are not part of next year's funding package, classrooms are actually facing a revenue shortfall of about $20 million, he said.

Wilken said the legislation "was sullied a bit by our mistake."

Hawker said he takes umbrage at Wilken's characterization.

"I disagree completely with Sen. Wilken who somehow implies that we have hornswaggled the public, the Legislature and our schools," said Hawker.

Hawker said the task force determined early on that its goal was fair and adequate funding that did not rely on one-time grants.

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