Were schools as important as the dividend

The Legislature adjourned on time last week, a nice change from past special sessions that got in the way of summer fishing, watching baseball, eating anything off the grill (except eggplant) and sitting outdoors in the sun doing nothing.

Lawmakers settled on a healthy and wealthy but not necessarily wise dividend that will put $12,800 into the hands of a family of four this fall. As expected months ago, that single issue consumed the largest amount of political negotiating in the Legislature’s final days. House and Senate members also passed several pieces of legislation, but it was the amount of the dividend that dominated much of the tense talks between members.

No doubt spending billions of dollars should take time. Even overspending — as the Legislature did on the dividend — requires a lot of work, as fiscal realists have to bend and find a compromise with the fiscal dreamers who think the oil money will never run out, the Permanent Fund will never come up short, and the dividend is the biblical golden calf of Alaska political worship. And the big-bigger-biggest PFDers have to accept the math that they are in the minority — so get as much as they can and call it good.

It’s just too bad lawmakers don’t worship education funding as much as reelection-size dividends. The budget approved by lawmakers spends a lot more on dividends than it does on state funding to K-12 public education.

A big problem is that the state’s funding formula for public schools, which is based on enrollment numbers, has not changed since 2017.

Unable to gather enough support for a significant boost in the base student allocation in state law, House and Senate members agreed as part of the budget to appropriate a one-time extra payment equal to about 5% of the state’s K-12 funding. That $57 million for the 2022-2023 school year, which would provide about $143,000 in additional assistance for Wrangell schools, will be welcome at districts statewide. But it does nothing to help educate kids the following year or the years after that.

It may be the best that politics could deliver, but it’s not a gift that keeps giving.

Legislative opponents of increased state funding for schools have argued that test scores are too low and they are not willing to spend more money on poor results. They argue that school district administrative costs are too high, and more should be spent in the classroom.

They essentially blame the schools for not overcoming and solving all the problems of society and families and life, while expecting the schools to do it all at discount prices.

But it’s not totally hopeless. As part of a 45-page bill intended to help improve student reading skills, the Legislature inserted a small provision to add a microscopic increase to the state funding formula: One half of 1%, effective with the 2023-2024 school year.

That’s an extra $30 per student in the formula.

That’ll get school districts enough to buy pizzas for volunteers the next time they are short of paid staff in the classroom.

Alaska should do better for its students. Legislators will have another chance next year to put schools ahead of dividends, and voters should teach them that lesson in this year’s elections.

 

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