Alaska House rejects per-student school funding increase

The Alaska House of Representatives voted on Wednesday against increasing the amount written into law saying how much the state should spend per student in public schools.

Wednesday’s action isn’t final, and the House could change course as soon as 11 a.m. Thursday, when debates are scheduled to resume. House Minority Leader Calvin Schrage, I-Anchorage, said it would be accurate to consider things in a holding pattern.

“Obviously, we haven’t come to a deal yet. But the bill will be in second (reading) tomorrow. So we’ll still have the opportunity to amend the bill. And hopefully we’ll be able to find a bipartisan way forward to provide support to students in schools at a time that they really need it,” he said.

Supporters of the increase offered dire warnings about what will happen if funding doesn’t rise.

“Schools in Fairbanks will close. Schools across Alaska will close,” without more funding, warned Rep. Maxine Dibert, D-Fairbanks, before the House voted against her proposal to increase the school funding formula.

Wednesday’s debate revolved around Senate Bill 140, which is intended to increase internet speeds in public schools, in part by unlocking federal funding.

The funding increase amendments failed 19-21, with the three non-Republican members of the majority caucus – Reps. Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham; Neal Foster, D-Nome; and CJ McCormick, D-Bethel – voting with the 16 minority caucus members for the amendments. Rep. David Eastman, R-Wasilla and not a member of a caucus, voted with the 20 Republicans in the majority against them.

The debate focused on the amount of the base student allocation used to set how much the state should fund schools in the budget. The current amount is $5,960, though it received a one-time $340 increase this year, and the actual dollar amounts that schools receive are higher, since the BSA is adjusted higher based on factors like school sizes, the number of students with special needs and local costs.

Dibert proposed making a $680 increase permanent.

SB 140 was originally a bill focused on the internet in schools. But after the Senate passed it without controversy last year, multiple House committees sought to make it a vehicle for passing other education policies. Those proposals included the funding increase and changes sought by supporters of charter schools and the correspondence school programs that serve many homeschooled students.

Ultimately, the House rejected those committee proposals, bringing the bill back to the version the Senate passed. Then it rejected a series of proposals by members of the mostly Democratic minority caucus, which aimed to reinsert an increase to the school funding formula into the bill.

Majority-caucus Republicans were unsuccessful in adopting their preferred version of the bill, which included the charter and correspondence school changes as well as a $300 BSA increase. Edgmon, Foster and McCormick, as well as Eastman, voted against adopting that version on Monday.

Rep. Justin Ruffridge, R-Soldotna, had said last year that a $680 increase was needed by schools in his district. On Wednesday, he voted against that increase.

“I would say nothing is dead. We’re just working through the process,” he said afterward.

Eastman spoke against amendments to increase the school funding formula, noting the state’s low ranking among the states in student test scores.

“My question is, if we were to increase this amount, would we expect an increase in our performance? Or would we expect the same performance that we’ve had most recently?” he said.

Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, rejected linking funding increases to test score outcomes.

“Fundamentally, I’m bothered by the idea that these are widgets, and that if we just can make the widget cheaper and the factory faster, somehow we’ll spit out a better product,” he said.

But the arguments offered by supporters of the amendments to increase the school funding formula did not sway opponents.

On the House floor, Republican Reps. Laddie Shaw and Will Stapp attached yellow Post-It Notes over the “yes” buttons on their desks. The “no” buttons were left exposed for easy access.

James Brooks contributed to this article. The Alaska Beacon is an independent, donor-funded news organization.


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