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Alaska House Republicans advance education bill over strong opposition from teachers and parents

Jan. 21—JUNEAU — Alaska House Republicans on Saturday advanced an education package to the House floor over overwhelming objections from parents and teachers to the modest size of the school funding increase included in the bill.

The package combines several different proposals, including $58 million in teacher bonuses and a provision meant to increase the number of charter schools in Alaska — both measures proposed by Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy. The bill includes at least $23 million for home-schooled students, and up to $40 million estimated to be required to increase internet speeds for eligible schools across the state.

In an overflowing committee room Saturday, the vast majority of testimony from dozens of parents and teachers from across the state was against the House Republican proposal, particularly to the $300 increase to the Base Student Allocation — the state's per-student funding formula — at a cost of $77 million.

Education advocates have said a $350 million annual increase is needed after more than six years of virtually flat state funding, leading school administrators to face difficult choices to eliminate positions, end popular programs and potentially close schools.

After an almost eight-hour hearing, all five GOP majority members of the House Rules Committee voted to send the bill onto the House floor as "a comprehensive education package" with the biggest BSA increase in over a decade. Two members of the Democrat-dominated minority caucus spoke in strong opposition to the Republican-backed provisions.

Appearing in the state Capitol, Education Commissioner Deena Bishop supported the House package as "a strategic investment approach" to improve outcomes. She said it would get more funds directly into classrooms through bonuses, and increase school choice with more charter schools.

Bishop for years advocated for a significant increase to the BSA as Anchorage superintendent. After being appointed education commissioner by the governor last July, Bishop said that her position had "evolved" beyond calling for a blanket funding increase.

"When you know better, you do better — that's one of my mantras," Bishop said Saturday.

The vast majority of school administrators and teachers who called into the committee hearing strongly disagreed with Bishop.

Anchorage School District Superintendent Jharrett Bryantt and Margo Bellamy, the Anchorage School Board president, penned a letter to the committee in support of a $1,413 BSA increase at a cost of $350 million per year. Inflation has seen school costs in Anchorage rise by 27% since 2016 while state funding has stayed virtually unchanged over the same period, they said.

[Facing $98M deficit, Anchorage School Board begins to narrow down potential cuts]

School districts received more than $87 million in extra one-time school funding this fiscal year after Dunleavy vetoed half the amount approved by lawmakers. Bryantt and Bellamy noted that a $77 million funding increase would effectively amount to a cut.

Gene Stone, superintendent of Lower Yukon School District, spoke in support of a $350 million increase and said "rural Alaska schools are not receiving what they were promised."

Cyndy Mika, superintendent of Kodiak schools, called the House's proposed $300 BSA boost a "travesty."

The two House minority members on the committee — Rep. Calvin Schrage, I-Anchorage, and Rep. Zack Fields, D-Anchorage — supported an amendment to give schools the $350 million increase to annual funding; it failed along caucus lines with the Republican majority voting against the higher figure.

"We will not invest in education — it is a shame. It is a shame. It is a travesty. It is a dereliction of duty," Schrage said.

Anchorage Republican Rep. Craig Johnson, co-chair of House Rules Committee, said most House members may have supported a $175 million one-time boost for schools last year, but the $77 million permanent increase would be stable and predictable for districts, adding, "The value of that has not been considered."

In response to the House proposal, Caroline Storm, executive director of the Coalition for Education Equity, again warned that education advocacy groups are considering legal action unless the Legislature substantially boosts school funding.

"If the Legislature continues to grossly underfund public education, litigation is inevitable — given that our constitution is unambiguous about the requirements for the state to provide an adequate public education," she said.

'Bifurcated system'

Since Alaska ranked at the top of a new state-by-state charter school assessment last year, the Dunleavy administration has signaled support for more charter schools as part of the solution to Alaska's lagging reading and math assessments. But the House Republican proposal would dramatically change the approval process for charter schools in the state — giving control to a statewide board appointed solely by the governor.

Jeff Turner, a spokesman for the governor's office, said in a prepared statement that "allowing public charter organizers to apply for approval directly to the State Board of Education provides applicants an additional process for new charter schools."

"This is a streamlined approach as all charters currently need State Board approval. This new provision also maintains the same rigorous requirements currently in place," he added.

Bishop noted that many charter schools in Alaska had long waiting lists, reflecting strong demand from parents.

Critics said the new policy means a statewide board could establish a charter school, but local school districts would then be compelled to operate them.

Lon Garrison, executive director of the Association of Alaska School Boards, said that the nonprofit "fervently opposed" the policy change and that it "sets the stage for an adversarial relationship between a charter school and the district."

In an interview Friday, Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, said he was also strongly opposed to state authorization of charter schools, with concerns they would disproportionately benefit wealthy families.

"My fear, I guess, is that we wind up with a bifurcated system that has some kids have access to a better school than other kids do," he said.

[Alaska board of education lowers standard for student test scores, citing nationally high bar]

Bonuses and a homeschool boost

Teacher bonus payments were proposed last year by Gov. Dunleavy, ranging from $5,000 for teachers in urban schools to $15,000 for teachers in rural schools. Dunleavy said the bonuses would help recruit teachers to the state.

The Legislature's attorneys earlier in the week warned in a memo that the "disparate treatment" of teachers under the bonus proposal could violate the state constitution's equal protection clause.

Tom Klaameyer, president of NEA-Alaska, said in public testimony that the teachers union appreciated Dunleavy's "acknowledgment that teachers need increased pay," but that the bonuses should be broadened to include all school support staff, such as counselors.

"Any educator will tell you that our support staff are critical to the success of our students, and they are experiencing the highest turnover and earn the lowest wages," he said.

In public testimony, David Francis, a first-year teacher at Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School in Juneau, said students are facing "the chaos of high staff turnover" and that a substantial BSA increase would be much more effective.

"I don't want a bonus," he said. "I want to work in a state that supports its students."

The state's roughly 20,000 correspondence program students would receive $23 million in extra funding under one House Republican proposal to make homeschooled students eligible for "a special needs factor," which gives extra funding for Advanced Placement classes and vocational-technical education.

An amendment adopted Saturday would boost funding even further for homeschooled students. They currently receive 90% of the Base Student Allocation — a figure in state law chosen because those students were seen as using fewer resources than those at brick-and-mortar schools.

Rep. Jesse Sumner, R-Wasilla, successfully introduced an amendment to eliminate the different funding formulas so homeschooled students would have "parity" with other Alaska students. No cost estimates were cited for that policy change.

A lawsuit filed last year by NEA-Alaska challenged how some parents have used state funds for homeschool programs to reimburse private schools. The union has argued that violates the state constitution's prohibition on public funding for private and religious schools.

Scott Kendall, an attorney representing the teachers union, said that practice has been a "shadow school vouchers program" and that the House Republicans' bill would help "pump money into a program, most of which is being spent unconstitutionally."

A decision in the case is set to be issued no later than April, which could impact how that additional money could be used, Kendall said.

On to the Senate?

House Republicans said the plan is to pass an education bill and send it to the governor's desk quickly this year so lawmakers can focus on other issues such as the Permanent Fund dividend and energy.

If the bill passes on to the Senate, it could be negotiated through what's called a conference committee. Such a committee typically brings together a small group of lawmakers to negotiate a compromise behind closed doors before a final vote is held in both chambers.

Last year, the Senate approved $175 million in extra school funding per year, which stalled in the House.

Stevens said substantially increasing school funding is the bipartisan Senate majority's "No. 1 priority" this year. He wanted the 17-member bipartisan Senate majority to discuss the education package Monday, but he remained fearful that much of the bill had not been adequately vetted.

A bill introduced by Stevens requiring civics education passed the Senate last year; it was added into the House's education package by amendment after little debate.

Another amendment would require audits of a handful of school districts' finances each year after the Juneau School District announced an unprecedented budget crisis earlier in the month, due partly to accounting errors.

Anchorage Democratic Sen. Löki Tobin, co-chair of the Senate Education Committee, said the addition of various provisions meant the House's bill — originally written just to increase schools' internet speeds — would have too many elements combined in one package.

"It makes it heavy and it makes it convoluted, and it makes it difficult for the public to digest," she said.