With only a week to go in the legislative session, education funding is still up in the air and parents at a Senate Finance Committee hearing Thursday tried to bring the debate down to earth.
“I just really want to appeal to your hearts,” said Kenny Powers, who has two daughters in the Anchorage School District — one at West High School and the other at Romig Middle School. “I’ll be surprised if you can think of a more important priority than our future, through our children.”
“There is no better investment than our children. They are the future of Alaska,” she said. “Five years down the road, 10 years down the road. Funding is a key part of that. It really does affect the education our kids get.”
In his State of the State speech, Gov. Sean Parnell said he wanted 2014 to be remembered as the “Education Session.”
And while many familiar voices have been heard in Juneau this session — school superintendents, leaders from Alaska’s National Education Association and school board members — there’s been a new chorus in the mix; that of parents who have descended on Juneau in large numbers.
“In roughly two months, ‘Great Alaska Schools – Anchorage’ has grown from an idea to a movement,’” Deena Mitchell said to lawmakers.
Mitchell is one of the founders of Great Alaska Schools, a grassroots parents’ group that has swelled to more than 1,500 members statewide.
“Our meteoric growth is just one indication of how passionately Alaskans feel about education funding,” Mitchell said. “We know the session is reaching its critical last days and your time is valuable, so we did not mobilize our general membership to testify this morning.”
“Instead we are delivering to you petitions signed by over 2,000 Alaskans from 30 communities across the state expressing their support for Great Alaska Schools’ message of increasing the base (student) allocation,” she said.
“I will turn these over to the committee,” said Mitchell, flipping through a stack of papers. “They are from people from Seward to Nome.”
Great Alaska Schools has been pushing for a $400 boost in the BSA, which is part of the formula the state uses to calculate per student spending.
The House just passed a bill that raises the BSA by $300 over the next three years, but school funding advocates say that’s not enough to restore positions that have been cut in recent years, or to fend off future layoffs. House Bill 278 also adds another $30 million in one-time spending.
Senate leaders have taken a different approach. They want to increase education spending outside the BSA, and have proposed an increase of $75 million next year and another $100 million the following year.
Once the Legislature adds money to the BSA, that number becomes the new ceiling for future years.
Sen. Pete Kelly, co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, has said lawmakers are not happy with school performance and don’t want to spend more on education without assurances the money will be used to improve the system.
Kelly said the Senate’s spending plan is not designed as a permanent fix, but to give everyone more breathing room to come up with a better plan.
Mitchell asked lawmakers to look at it another way.
“We Alaska parents are looking forward to be a true partner in support of our Alaska schools, and we need our partner to be the state,” Mitchell said. “So we come to you with an offer, as parents and as consumers of the education system. Increase the BSA by $400 — $125 dollars in each of the following years — and we will work with you during those three years of stable funding to identify ways to improve the system.”
Otherwise, Mitchell said, the debate will continue to focus on funding.
“We are Alaskans who are asking you to prioritize education spending over the other funding demands,” Mitchell said.
The other co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Sen. Kevin Meyer of Anchorage, said the Legislature has been a good partner with schools.
“There’s a lot of things we’ve done at the state level to relieve local communities from the financial burden of paying for education,” said Meyer, who noted that the state reimburses districts for 70 percent of the costs of school construction and has picked up the tab for paying off the debt to the teachers’ retirement system.
Meyer encouraged parents to turn to their local governments as well; to not only look to the Legislature for more funding. Meyer said he would like to see more responsibility shifted back to municipalities.