By James Brooks
Alaska Beacon 

Despite educators' pleas for changes, school funding bill advances closer to Alaska House vote


January 25, 2024

The Alaska Legislature’s big education funding bill will reach the floor of the Alaska House of Representatives by next week, a leading Republican lawmaker said Monday.

“We’re going to get it out. It’s not going to sit anywhere,” said Rep. Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage and chair of the House Rules Committee.

On Saturday, members of Johnson’s committee heard more than seven hours of public testimony, mostly in favor of a large increase in Alaska’s funding for public schools. 

The committee declined to fulfill that request before advancing Senate Bill 140 to the House floor.

The bill proposes a $300 increase to the state’s base student allocation — the funding formula for public schools — but that would actually be a year-over-year cut due to the expiration of a one-year $340 per-student bonus payment authorized in 2023.

The committee’s proposed action would nevertheless be the largest permanent bump for the base student allocation since it was created.

School districts have requested a $1,413 per-student increase — enough to make up for inflation since 2012 — and the Alaska Senate approved a $680 per-student increase in a separate bill last year.

The committee’s word isn’t the final one: The full House could begin voting on amendments as soon as Friday, Johnson said. Any bill passed by the House will also be subject to negotiation with the Senate. 

Over the weekend, school district leaders and advocates for public schools unsuccessfully urged the committee to add more funding.

“I appreciate the proposed $300 BSA increase included in this bill. But it’s clearly not enough to support the necessary programs and learning opportunities for our students,” said Erica Kludt-Painter, superintendent of schools for the Southeast Alaska town of Petersburg. 

Sandra Barron, a K-6 teacher at Moose Pass School on the Kenai Peninsula, has been teaching for 21 years at various Alaska districts and said a funding increase would help districts hire staff for vacant jobs.

“Many schools have fewer teachers, and support staff. And they’re all doing more and finding it difficult to provide our students with everything they need,” she said.

Testifiers and some lawmakers drew a direct correlation between the BSA and class sizes. While the bill also would provide funding for student transportation and improved Internet in rural classrooms, BSA money isn’t designated for a single purpose, allowing school districts to use it for teachers, summer school, maintenance, and non-teaching positions.

“We already have massive class sizes,” said Rep. Zack Fields, D-Anchorage. “Far too many of our classes have well over 30 kids; we have elementary schools with class sizes in the upper 20s. … Educational best practices don’t recommend having class sizes in excess of 25 for any of the elementary class sizes.”

In addition to addressing the base student allocation, the version of Senate Bill 140 advancing toward the House floor also contains several priorities advanced by Gov. Mike Dunleavy and Republican members of the House, such as greater funding for homeschooled students and charter schools.

On Saturday, the committee voted 5-2 to give students in home correspondence programs — typically used by homeschooled students — the same treatment in the base student allocation as traditional students. 

Previously, the Legislature funded them at a lower level because they don’t typically use brick-and-mortar schools and so don’t need to worry about school maintenance.

“Funding correspondence students at the same level as other students is only fair and timely,” said Rep. Jamie Allard, R-Eagle River.

The committee voted down an attempt by Rep. Calvin Schrage, I-Anchorage, to remove sections of the bill dealing with charter schools.

Those sections would allow the state school board to approve a charter school in a local district, bypassing the local school board.

“What this change outlined in the bill would ultimately do is take away all of that local control, and put it in the hands of a board which is not elected and serves at the whim of the governor,” Schrage said.

Allard, speaking in favor of the proposal, said the current system is weighted against charter schools because districts effectively decide the fate of a competitor.

“It’s almost like when you have McDonald’s and Burger King, and Burger King says, ‘You can’t open up next to me because I want to sell my burgers. They’re better than yours.’ We can’t do that,” she said.

Another late amendment mandates courses in civics education. That proposal was first written by Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, in Senate Bill 29, and was adopted unanimously by the rules committee.

Senate Bill 140 is expected to be read onto the House floor Wednesday morning, and floor amendments could begin Friday.

The Alaska Beacon is an independent, donor-funded news organization.


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