The old adage says you don't look a gift horse in the mouth. Days ago the Alaska Legislature passed Senate Bill 61, putting $1 billion (that's with a B) of excess revenues into the Public Education Fund. This appropriation is significant for the possibilities it opens up for both forward funding and adequate funding.
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The 13,000 members of National Education Association-Alaska applaud the Legislature's action. If the state is going to park money for future use, we can think of no better place.
In 2005, the Legislature created the Public Education Fund through House Bill 158. NEA-Alaska was supportive of the measure then and still believes that setting aside money for the constitutional mandate of public education is always positive. The creation of the fund was akin to buying a new toolbox. The action undertaken by the Senate allowed for the toolbox to be filled with the needed materials to accomplish the work of adequately funding kindergarten through 12th-grade education in Alaska. This breakthrough appropriation to the fund sets aside enough excess revenue to address forward funding as soon as next year and adequacy (overtime).
Forward funding would be a good thing. It would allow school districts to get out of the annual cycle of setting speculative budgets and sending out pink slips to teachers in March - only to rescind those layoffs if the funding from Juneau comes through later that spring.
Over the years, NEA-Alaska has worked with lawmakers and governors to improve K-12 education funding. In the past three years, state leaders have added more than $250 million to the Base Student Allocation. That sounds like a huge increase for students, until you consider the hyper-increasing costs of the retirement program and of energy needed to run facilities.
The sad truth is that only about one-fifth, or $50 million, of the $250 million has made its way to the districts for improving student achievement. And when you divide that by the state's 53 school districts, you can put those "historic" increases into perspective.
Improvements in student achievement begin with a quality teacher in every classroom, supported by quality education support professionals. Anchorage teachers have recently achieved a contract that will nudge the district back toward being competitive in the marketplace for quality teachers.
Alaska's reality is that with our small population base, we will always have to import about 75 percent of our teachers from the Lower 48 and elsewhere. We must attract quality teachers - and keep them once they move up here.
A recent study by the Institute of Social and Economic Research looked at Alaska's competitiveness and came up with disturbing conclusions:
"Higher living costs, especially in remote areas, have historically made Alaska teachers' salaries higher than the U.S. average, and salaries here still rank number 11 in the U.S. But from 1994 to 2004, teachers' salaries in Alaska grew less than in any other state - under nine percent, compared with 31 percent nationwide. Adjusted for inflation, Alaska teachers' salaries fell 14 percent during the decade. So on the basis of salary, Alaska has become less competitive nationally in the search for quality teachers" (Alaska Teacher Supply and Demand, 2005 Update, www.iser.uaa.alaska.edu).
NEA-Alaska has a seven-year plan to achieve adequate funding by 2014. For two decades Alaska schools suffered the ravages of inflation and flat funding. It's going to take time and money to dig ourselves out of the hole.
The Public Education Fund could help. It would be a great place for lawmakers to get the increases our schools will need over the next several years. This session, NEA-Alaska has advocated for a Base Student Allocation of $5,953 per student (up from the current $5,380). This is an increase of $115 million dollars or about $26 million more than called for in Senate Bill 1. This increased amount would help us make systematic progress back toward adequate funding.
Bill Bjork is president of National Education Association-Alaska, which represents more than 13,000 teachers and education support professionals throughout Alaska.