The House Finance Committee on Tuesday restored language to a high school exit exam bill to allow special needs kids who fail the test more options to get a diploma.
The panel also passed a measure to increase education funding by $20 million. If the Legislature passes the bill, it would mean an additional $790,000 to Juneau schools, according to a state analysis. Another bill that passed a Senate panel Tuesday would eliminate state aid for the North Slope Borough School District.
The amended version of the exit exam bill restores language passed by the Senate allowing students with learning disabilities who can't pass the exam to take alternative assessments. The bill also would allow special ed students to take the test using calculators and other tools approved by a panel of educators called an IEP team. Anchorage Republican Rep. Con Bunde voted against the amendment, saying it would allow some students who haven't met state standards to get diplomas anyway.
"There is no limit to what the local districts and the IEP team can do now to lower the standards," Bunde said. "If they want to decide a student who reads at the third grade level should get a diploma, they can grant that."
Rep. Ken Lancaster, who authored the amendment, said the old version of the bill was unfair to special education students.
"With the bar set so high, they'd never pass the test," said Lancaster, a Soldotna Republican.
The bill also pushes back the effective date of the exit exam to 2004. Under the measure, students without learning disabilities who fail the test would receive a certificate of achievement instead of a diploma. The bill now heads to the House for a floor vote.
The committee also passed a bill to increase education funding $20 million by raising the state appropriation from $3,940 to $4,041 per student. Bill sponsor Rep. Gary Stevens said the cost of living has gone up 30 percent the past 10 years, but the base formula for education funding has increased only 5 percent.
"We don't have a single nurse left in school in any one of the four schools in my Senate district," Wrangell Republican Sen. Robin Taylor told the committee. "We don't have music programs, we don't have soccer programs, we don't have coaches."
Bunde reminded the panel of an expected $600 million budget gap next year, saying today's school kids will have to deal with the state's financial problems as adults.
"Every dollar we spend is another dollar they're going to have to provide in the future," Bunde said.
Meanwhile, the Senate Finance Committee approved on a 5-3 vote a revision in the education foundation formula that would eliminate state aid for the North Slope Borough School District.
North Slope Superintendent Freda Arnhart said the formula revision would shave about $20 million out of the district's $45 million budget, triggering layoffs and program cuts. School board member Bob Harcharek noted teacher contracts already have been signed, possibly setting up litigation if the bill goes through.
Although the intent of the legislation is to increase the financial contribution from property-rich districts, the North Slope already leads the state with 58 percent local effort in education funding, Arnhart said. She raised the possibility that the school district would operate privately and ignore mandates if the state money is cut off.
Kathy Dye can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Staff writer Bill McAllister contributed to this article.
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