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Small charter schools take a hit in funding

Testimony from Juneau may not have helped case

Posted: Friday, May 25, 2007

Alaska's small charter schools took a hit from the Legislature in the final days of the session as lawmakers scrutinized institutions such as Juneau Community Charter School.

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Small charter schools get less money per student than do large ones, but the Legislature in recent years has added extra cash to bring them closer to what other schools get.

Last year, small charter schools got an extra $250,000 divided among them, but this year members of the House Finance Committee didn't want to provide any extra money.

Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, who sits on the Senate Finance Committee, helped persuade the Senate to budget $200,000.

Just before the end of the legislative session last week, however, a conference committee met late in the evening and cut the amount for this year to $100,000.

Rep. Mike Chenault, co-chairman of the House Finance Committee and the conference committee, said he objected to the small number of students in some charter schools.

Chenault appeared to be referring to Juneau. Parents from the Juneau Community Charter School had testified about what they liked about their school, and many identified its small size as one of its strengths. That strategy may have backfired.

"We talked to a number of charter schools," said Chenault, R-Nikiski, explaining his vote to cut the funding.

"We also talked to one in particular, one that I know of, that has stated they really have no intention of increasing the number of students in their school," he said.

Small charter schools

Average

School/District enrollment

Ayaprun ElitnaurvikYupik Immersion, 142.60Lower Kuskokwim

Effie Kokrine, Fairbanks 97.65

Juneau Community 67.65

Fireweed Academy, Kenai 66.00

Anvil CityScience Academy, Nome 43.50

SOURCE: Alaska Legislature.

Juneau's charter school is one of the smaller ones in the state, and parent leader Brenda Taylor said its downtown building doesn't have room for expansion.

"There's absolutely no space in that building, and no space for us to go to," she said.

Many parents, she said, prefer to have their children in a smaller school.

Chenault said the small charter schools were being subsidized by the state, and his goal with the budget cut was to "force them to get their enrollments up."

Other small charter schools around the state include a middle school science academy in Nome and a Yupik language immersion program in Bethel. Those schools joined Juneau in being below the state full funding level of 150 students, for reasons they're not likely to surmount, Taylor said.

"I guess what we'd really like to get them to understand is that a lot of schools don't have a choice," she said.

"There are many reasons schools are below 150," shesaid. "They're geographic anddemographic and totally unpredictable."

Taylor said it is difficult to say how much of the $100,000 will go to Juneau Community Charter School because of the difficulty in predicting how many charter schools' enrollment will be below 150.

The Juneau school's share is likely to be $20,000 to $30,000, she said.

Topping 150 students means big financial benefits for schools under the state funding formula, and those near that amount usually try hard to get above it.

Others drop below 150, to their dismay.

Taylor disputed Chenault's contention that schools in Juneau or elsewhere were "subsidized." The small charter schools get less money per student, she said, but they make up for that by using parent volunteer help.

The conference committee split on the issue, with Sen. Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River, a charter school advocate, pushing for the larger amount. Joining him was Rep. Reggie Joule, D-Kotzebue, who represents one of the other small charter schools.

Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, supported the lower amount, which may cost Bethel's Yupik school next year. During the session, he did not say why he supported the lower funding, and he did not return calls later.

This summer, a task force is expected to begin developing a new school funding formula. Chenault said he hopes it also will address charter school funding and solve the problem.



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