Public school advocates call for 14% increase in state funding

While Alaska lawmakers have not yet started to discuss specific numbers, public education advocates are calling for an increase of at least 14% to the per-student formula used to calculate state funding for K-12 schooling.

In Senate Education Committee meetings held in the second week of the legislative session, members of the bipartisan Senate majority appeared open to a sizable increase to the base student allocation formula, but have yet to put forward legislation to that effect. At the same time, Republicans who control the majority in the House have signaled that they are interested in pursuing a more modest funding increase.

From 2011 to 2022, the per-student funding formula has increased by less than 5%, while Alaska’s urban consumer price index has risen 24.6%.

The Alaska Association of School Boards is urging lawmakers to consider an increase of at least $860 to the $5,960 per-student amount. That number accounts for inflation between 2017 and 2022, and would translate to a roughly 14% increase over the current per-student funding rate. But association director Lon Garrison said Jan. 25 that number is already insufficient to account for inflation, given the continued rise in costs.

“There’s actually a much greater increase,” Garrison said. Still, he said that number is a good starting point for lawmakers as they begin the process of deliberating on a funding increase, with the hopes of finalizing legislation in the coming months.

“At least there’s a point that we can talk about. It’s going to be a debate and a negotiation,” Garrison said. “We’re going to advocate for where we started, but in reality, we know this is going to be a discussion.”

Rep. Justin Ruffridge, a freshman Republican from Soldotna named co-chair of the House Education Committee, said school funding will be one of the committee’s focuses this year, but he pegged the number for a possible increase somewhere between $250 to $750 — far below what most educators see as the bare minimum. The House Education Committee, which will also be co-chaired by Rep. Jamie Allard, R-Eagle River, has not yet met since the legislative session began earlier this month.

Conservatives are also considering tying education funding more closely with student performance. Alaska children have regularly scored in the bottom on reading and math assessments compared to children in other states, and some conservative policymakers have suggested that is because public school funding is not used effectively.

Teachers and education advocates have said poor student performance can be attributed to continued flat funding of education, which has made it harder to provide students the conditions needed to succeed.

House Speaker Cathy Tilton, a Wasilla Republican, said in a news conference earlier this month that she would consider input from the right-wing Alaska Policy Forum in deciding education policy. That group, which has in the past championed cuts to spending on state services, argued in a recent report that public schools lack accountability.

Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, said his caucus has been discussing the need for an increase to education funding, but also the need for “setting up sideboards” to ensure that funding is used in particular ways over others.

“I think it’s a bit of a problem, in setting up criteria like that,” said Stevens, a longtime university professor.

Lisa Parady, director of the Alaska Council of School Administrators, told the Senate Education Committee that educators are “not afraid of accountability” but that without a substantial funding increase, they will continue to struggle meeting the basic needs of students.

“I really want to be clear that we’re not asking for whipped cream or ice cream on top of the pie. We’re just asking for crust, or maybe the filling,” Parady said.

A 14% increase would provide an additional $400,000 or more to the Wrangell School District, which has struggled financially in recent years with declining enrollment and rising costs.

During the Senate Education hearings, lawmakers were inundated with examples of districts struggling to keep schools open, teachers paid, buildings warm, and lunches served.

Sarah Sledge, director of the Coalition for Education Equity, said that districts in rural Alaska are already dealing with or preparing for budget deficits given a lack of increases to education funding over five years. Just between 2022 and 2023, fuel, utility and construction costs have gone up significantly, in some districts by more than 40%, she said.

“These are things they have to pay for in order to deliver education to our children,” she said.

Sledge and Parady said that the schools’ needs to cover rising fixed costs like utility and maintenance bills are eating into their ability to recruit educators and keep support staff like librarians and cafeteria workers.

Sen. Jesse Bjorkman, a Republican from Nikiski who is also a high school teacher, raised concern about the fact that even a 16% increase to school funding would not enable schools to fully fund career and technical education programs, world language classes, counseling services, librarians, nurses, school lunch programs and janitorial services.

“If we want to actually get back to where we were 10 years ago, with the workforce development training and with all of the educational opportunities that were available then,” Bjorkman said, “we have to make a significant investment over and above that amount, don’t we?”

 

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