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Alaska education bill backed by House Republicans advances to finance committee


JUNEAU — A House Republican-backed education bill cleared its first hurdle Monday, advancing to the finance committee with less than six weeks left in the legislative session.

House Bill 392 has a $680 boost to the $5,960 Base Student Allocation — the state’s per-student funding formula; provisions proposed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy to increase the number of charter schools; a substantial funding boost for home-schooled and correspondence students, and additional funding intended to help K-3 students improve their reading outcomes.

The measure, proposed by Anchorage Republican Rep. Tom McKay, was pitched as a compromise that could potentially be signed by Dunleavy. Last month, legislators fell one vote short of overriding the governor’s veto of a bipartisan $200 million education package. Dunleavy said that bill fell short because it would not have allowed a board he appoints to approve new charter schools.

With time running out in the regular session, it remains unclear if lawmakers have the time or energy to pass another comprehensive education bill. The budget has not passed and neither have measures to address a looming shortfall of Cook Inlet natural gas.

McKay’s bill passed the House Education Committee 0n Monday during a heated and testy hearing on a 5-2 vote.

Four Republican majority members voted in favor of advancing the measure, along with Rep. Andi Story, a Juneau Democrat. The no votes were from Sitka independent Rep. Rebecca Himschoot, a member of the Democrat-dominated minority, and Rep. CJ McCormick, a Bethel Democrat and one of three non-Republican members of the majority who represent districts in rural Alaska.

The total cost of the education package is not yet clear, but was expected to exceed the cost of the funding bill vetoed by Dunleavy due to a substantial increase to spending on home-schooled students. All of the package’s fiscal notes, which account for the cost of a bill, were not ready before HB 392 advanced to the finance committee.

The $680 BSA boost would cost more than $175 million per year for the roughly 128,000 Alaska students attending public schools. Story’s office estimated the extra funding for Alaska’s roughly 20,000 home-schooled students would cost $47.5 million per year. Staff for McKay said cost estimates for reading intervention provisions are still being drafted by the state Education Department.

Charter schools

Currently, only local school boards can authorize charter schools. One of the bill’s most contentious provisions would expand that power to the state board of education, which is appointed solely by the governor. That proposal has been strongly opposed by an association representing school boards as a threat to local control.

At Monday’s education committee hearing, a total of 12 amendments were heard and 11 were rejected. One provision was added to the bill that would allow school boards to make recommendations about charter schools to the state board of education before they are approved.

“That local board can say, ‘Yes, we have the capacity for this charter school,’ or, ‘Here’s how we could shape this charter school to make it even better,’” said Himschoot, who sponsored the amendment, adding, “This just adds a layer of local input.”

Himschoot’s amendment was adopted unanimously by the House Education Committee. The remaining 11 amendments were all rejected on 4-3 votes.

Four Republicans from the House majority — Reps. Jamie Allard, Mike Prax, Justin Ruffridge, and McKay — voted no to each of the 11 amendments. Two members of the Democrat-dominated House minority — Himschoot and Story — were joined in supporting each of those amendments by McCormick.

A rejected amendment would have required an annual state report on charter school waiting lists, after Dunleavy suggested that too many students were denied access to schools they sought to attend. McKay and Allard expressed concerns that could have privacy impacts.

According to data from the Alaska Association of School Boards, there were 836 students statewide on charter school waitlists last month. Anchorage School Board member Kelly Lessens, testifying on her own behalf, said by email Monday that in Anchorage, her data showed there are currently 199 students on waiting lists solely for charter schools. That represents less than 0.5% of the total Anchorage student body, she said.

Another rejected amendment would have paused the state board of education from being able to authorize new charter schools. Himschoot said that further study was needed before the Legislature made “an uninformed major policy shift.”

Correspondence students

Two rejected amendments would have reduced the proposed $47.5 million funding boost for homeschooled students. Story, a Juneau Democrat, said that costs to educate students at neighborhood schools are higher, partly because of the expenses to maintain school facilities.

“I think we have given them a significant amount of new money,” Story said of the BSA boost in the bill and in support of a more modest $30 million increase for correspondence students.

Trevor Jepsen, an aide to McKay, said that funding for homeschooled students added to the bill could be used by school boards for any purpose.

“It’s just more money for districts and we hope they spend it on correspondence programs,” he said.

Another amendment that failed would have required the state to collect data from school districts on how parents of homeschooled students use their state allotments. Officials at the Alaska Department of Education said that currently can be done by school districts.

Funding boost

Education advocates have welcomed the proposed $680 BSA boost in the bill, but said a school funding increase over twice that size is needed to make up for several years of virtually flat school funding and high inflation.

Several of the amendments that failed addressed funding by proposing to boost the BSA by $1,413; adding another BSA increase next year, and inflation-proofing the funding formula for one year.

Allard questioned proposals to increase education funding, and asked members, “Where are you looking at taking those funds from the budget?”

Legislators in support of those proposals said those questions were best answered by the finance committee.

McKay said the proposed $680 BSA boost in the bill was already the largest nominal school funding increase in state history. The $680 figure matches the school funding increase included in Senate Bill 140, the education bill vetoed last month by Dunleavy.

“The notion that we are just starving the education establishment is, frankly, highly debatable,” McKay said.

McKay referred to a recent Rutgers University study that found Alaska ranks second among states in adequately funding its public school system. The authors of that study have since said that data is flawed and doesn’t account for unique cost impacts in Alaska, like its sparse population and remoteness, according to reporting by the Juneau Empire.

In response to the claim that Alaska’s public school system is adequately funded, McCormick, a Bethel Democrat, pointed to black mold in Western Alaska schools, and dilapidated school facilities in rural Alaska generally.

“Are we adequately funding schools? Are we maintaining public schools? I don’t think so,” he said.

HB 392 now heads to the House Finance Committee, which has a busy schedule focused on energy bills. It remains unclear when the education bill will be heard next.

If the measure clears the finance committee, it would then need approval from the full House before heading to the Senate for its consideration. Members of the Senate said House Republicans had to take the lead on a new education bill after the previous effort had failed.

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