February 21, 2024
Sweeping education bill advances to House floor despite overwhelming opposition from educators


From left, Bela Pyare, 13, Josie Elfers, 11, Nayeli Hood, 11, and Emily Ferry, a member of the Alaska Association of School Boards, discuss their testimony about a board-based education bill in a hallway at the Alaska State Capitol during a House Rule Committee meeting on Saturday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Virtually every issue and stakeholder involved in education were part of a daylong meeting at the Alaska State Capitol on Saturday, with the House Rules Committee ultimately advancing to a floor vote a bill making sweeping changes — including significant boosts to charter schools and homeschooling — despite overwhelming testimony in opposition from public school educators.

The nearly five hours of public testimony, and subsequent two hours of debate by legislators about amendments and the bill itself, occurred along largely predictable and familiar political lines. Largely Republican proponents say the bill offers targeted education policy solutions rather than just throwing more money at districts, while a coalition of Democrats, independents and moderate Republicans say districts need a lot more money due to inflation taking a heavy toll on several years of flat funding.

Deena Bishop, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development, testifies during a House Rules Committee meeting on Saturday. She previously supported a large increase in per-student funding as superintendent of Anchorage’s schools, but has changed her declared stance since being appointed commissioner by Gov. Mike Dunleavy, who is proposing no increase in such funding next year. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)Deena Bishop, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development, testifies during a House Rules Committee meeting on Saturday. She previously supported a large increase in per-student funding as superintendent of Anchorage’s schools, but has changed her declared stance since being appointed commissioner by Gov. Mike Dunleavy, who is proposing no increase in such funding next year. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Deena Bishop, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development, testifies during a House Rules Committee meeting on Saturday. She previously supported a large increase in per-student funding as superintendent of Anchorage’s schools, but has changed her declared stance since being appointed commissioner by Gov. Mike Dunleavy, who is proposing no increase in such funding next year. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

The bill contains a hodgepodge of proposals including year-end teacher bonuses, more help for hearing-impaired students, increased transportation funds and random financial audits of districts — the latter a reaction in part to the Juneau School District’s recently revealed $9.5 million deficit due largely to a series of accounting errors.

However, the key issue of debate is whether core funding for public schools will decrease or increase next year.

All five Republicans on the committee voted to advance the bill, which reduces this year’s funding of $6,300 per student to $6,260 next year, with the two Democratic/independent minority members expressing opposition. The funding would nonetheless be an increase over the permanent $5,960 Base Student Allocation formula that is in Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s proposed budget for next year.

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”I don’t disagree that the Legislature has underfunded, but I don’t think they’ve given the money in a way that it can be used” specifically for the purpose of classroom instruction, said Rep. Craig Johnson, an Anchorage Republican who chairs the House Rules Committee. He said the $300 BSA increase is the biggest permanent hike since 2017 and thus gives districts more security than a one-time increase of $340 in effect for the current year.

Most lawmakers and other people opposing the bill are seeking a significant BSA increase — more than $1,000 per student compared to this year is the high-end target number — and expressing concerns about the charter/homeschooling provisions.

“The state of Alaska has said no, we will not invest in our students, we will not invest in our future workers, we will not invest in education and it is a shame,” said House Minority Leader Calvin Schrage, an Anchorage independent on the rules committee. “It is a travesty and it is a dereliction of duty.”

Educators, legislators and other people fill a meeting room at the Alaska State Capitol on Saturday as the House Rules Committee hears public testimony about an education bill. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)Educators, legislators and other people fill a meeting room at the Alaska State Capitol on Saturday as the House Rules Committee hears public testimony about an education bill. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Educators, legislators and other people fill a meeting room at the Alaska State Capitol on Saturday as the House Rules Committee hears public testimony about an education bill. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

The legislation, Senate Bill 140, originated as a simple effort to assist rural school districts obtain high-speed internet. The bill has gone through a couple of major rewrites since the end of last year’s session that add provisions from a multitude of other education bills by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, making the version passed by the House Rules Committee akin to using aftermarket parts to covert a moped into a Winnebago.

It also means there are some odd quirks for legislators involved with the original bill, such as state Sen. Jesse Kiehl, a Juneau Democrat, being listed as a co-sponsor although he said he no longer supports it because of the vast changes.

Key elements of the current bill beyond the rural internet and per-student funding include:

• Extra money for homeschooling by giving the state’s estimated 20,000 correspondence students a total of $23 million in “special needs” funds for purposes such as vocational and Advanced Placement instruction. Also, an amendment adopted Saturday increases the per-student funding formula for such students so it matches the level of “traditional” public school students, rather than the current 90%.

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• Putting charter schools under the authority of a statewide board appointed by the governor, rather than at the district level, which critics said would potentially force districts to operate specific charter schools regardless of their ability/desire to do so. The bill also increases per-student funding for charter schools to 100% of the traditional school level.

• Year-end teacher bonuses between $5,000 for urban districts (including Juneau) to $15,000 for the most remote districts. The proposal, first introduced last year by Dunleavy, has been criticized by many education officials because there are no provisions ensuring teachers remain for future years, thus failing as a solution to the ongoing shortage of instructors.

• Increases funding and program requirements for hearing-impaired students, first introduced in a bill last May by Rep. Jamie Allard, an Eagle River Republican. Some educators have expressed concern about whether requirements such as requiring districts “to provide services using the parent’s chosen method of communication” would be unaffordable or unmanageable, especially in remote areas with fewer employees.

• A “civics curriculum and assessments requirement” based on U.S. citizenship naturalization examinations. Also, “the curriculum and assessment must also include systems of government used by Alaska Natives.” Students must pass the exam to graduate, with certain exemptions.

The House Rules Committee hears testimony about a wide-ranging education bill on Saturday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)The House Rules Committee hears testimony about a wide-ranging education bill on Saturday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

The House Rules Committee hears testimony about a wide-ranging education bill on Saturday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Ultimately, SB 140’s fate, assuming it passes the House during a floor vote that could occur this week, will likely be determined by a joint House-Senate conference committee that will draft a compromise version for both chambers to vote on — with the possibility of a veto by Dunleavy looming overhead.

The House floor vote could also result in amendments to the bill. A few rural representatives in the 23-member Republican-led majority could seek additional BSA funds, for instance, in exchange for their votes to ensure passage. Three members of what’s known as the four-representative “Bush Caucus” on Thursday voted to restore additional BSA funding to this year’s budget during an unsuccessful joint session to override Dunleavy’s vetoing of those funds.

Saturday’s SB 140 debate occurred on the same day the Juneau Board of Education was discussing the district’s financial crisis at its annual retreat — the latest of a multitude of meetings since the deficit was revealed about two weeks ago. The deficit has become part of the statewide education funding debate, with some officials — including Dunleavy — arguing the accounting errors show why simply giving districts more money isn’t the solution.

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“I hope this is not the canary in the coal mine and the beginning of additional discoveries of poor accounting,” the governor wrote in a Jan. 12 message on an official social media account. “However, only putting money into education will not improve student performance or ensure the solvency of school districts.”

A sign propped up against a computer asks lawmakers to approve more per-student education funding during a House Rules Committee meeting Saturday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)A sign propped up against a computer asks lawmakers to approve more per-student education funding during a House Rules Committee meeting Saturday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

A sign propped up against a computer asks lawmakers to approve more per-student education funding during a House Rules Committee meeting Saturday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

But the underfunding of districts the past several years exceeds the scope of the district’s current shortfall, both in size and statewide impact, Juneau Mayor Beth Weldon, testifying during Saturday’s hearing.

“To be perfectly clear I’m not here to blame the Legislature for a deficit,” she said. “The school district owns the lack of accounting and errors that resulted in this surprise deficit. I am here today to advocate for an increase in BSA simply because the cost of providing quality education has outpaced state investment.”

At the same time, Weldon said, she agrees with people who argue a BSA increase is “just a band-aid,” and a more comprehensive reform of education in the state is needed.

An amendment adopted Saturday, in addition to requiring the state department of education to conduct random audits of at least four districts each year, also mandates an annual report to the Legislature that contains “recommendations for any change to public school foundation funding the department supports; a survey of each school district’s curriculum, programs, and services…an explanation of whether there is any duplication of the curriculum, programs, and service within the district; a definition of ‘accountability’ as that term applies to measuring school and student performance; and recommended metrics for determining school and student performance other than the standardized testing that is currently used.”

• Contact Mark Sabbatini at [email protected] or (907) 957-2306.