The buzz in the hallways, here at the capital, is all about Education funding. We all recognize that if we’re going to keep America’s workforce strong, today’s students need to be getting the best education possible.
There are those who believe that the state hasn’t raised education funding in several years. This is not so. In fact, in Fiscal Year 2009 the House of Representatives instituted forward funding education with a three year increase that just ended two years ago. In addition to increasing the BSA by $100 each year, we have also increased Vocational Education and Intensive Services; and the district cost factor has been fully implemented. All these together have added up to another $1,000+ per student per year; depending on the school district and how many intensive needs students they have, and whether they are gaining students or losing them.
There’s also little argument with the fact that the costs to provide that education continues to rise. In Alaska, the problem arises at the intersection between rapidly rising education costs and decreasing oil revenues. We need to recognize this problem and find a way through it. The fact is - that the amount of oil being produced and shipped out of Alaska has been diminishing annually; and we see no signs of that turning around soon. Because the state is almost 90% dependent on oil revenues for our operating costs, the only thing that’s saving us right now is the fact that oil prices are still high. It was not so many years ago that oil prices were so low ($20-$22 a barrel) that we were worried about how to keep the state operating. We cut every budget except education during those years. Basing future education funding on the theory that oil prices will continue to remain high would be making a dangerous assumption – one that a future legislature may not be able to support; for once an increase is built into the formula, it would be hard to pull it out if revenues fall.
In addition to just looking at increased funding, I also feel that many of our schools need to be looking at some serious structural changes in how they educate students. I’d like to see schools channel students in the right direction- and get them more prepared for leaving high school - by more carefully assessing and guiding them into appropriate courses that will keep them in school and working towards careers that excite them. I applaud schools that have already started doing this.
With the rising cost of a college education, and the needs of each individual, not every student needs to go to college. Rather than a college degree, many of today’s high paying jobs require mechanical and technical skills that can be acquired in high school or in a few weeks or months of vocational training after graduation. Young adults with technical training can begin earning good wages very quickly out of high school, and not be saddled with huge college debts that can take years to pay down.
One of the biggest concerns of the House is that there are ever increasing expenses in every school’s budget that keep diverting funds from the classroom. Insurance, utilities, maintenance, and the price of supplies are just a few of the increasing costs over which none of us has control. In other words, even though we keep increasing funding in the BSA, often very little, if any, of that increase is going into the classroom. This is the dilemma that we are grappling with. Stay tuned for updates on this issue.
I have introduced House Bill 242, which would target a new pot of education funding directly for technology. It would create a “Digital Learning Funding Factor” that would help school districts purchase and replace technology in classrooms. With today’s students already living in a world that is almost entirely dependent on technology, how they learn and what they learn is constantly changing. If implemented, this bill will send digital learning funds straight into classrooms to help give our kids the knowledge and skills they need to move into tomorrow’s workforce.