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Democrats offer their own education initiatives

By Rhonda McBride 7:49 AM February 21, 2014

The Democrats will officially introduce their legislation on Friday.

JUNEAU – Democrats upped the ante on Thursday with a buffet of bills on education.

They come fairly late in the game; more than a third of the way through the legislative session. But Democrats said they want to take Gov. Sean Parnell up on his pledge to make 2014 the “Education Session.”

“You start the conversation. You push it forward, and incrementally, it can happen. Or a groundswell makes it happen,” said Sen. Berta Gardner, a Democrat and member of the Education Committee.

For Democrats, the top priority remains the same since the session started — an increase in the Base Student Allocation formula, or the amount of money the state spends on each student.

Among the measures on the table:

·     Increasing the BSA by $404

·     Increasing the BSA for charter schools by 10 percent

·     Create a mechanism for charter schools to be based in an existing neighborhood school

·     More money to help charter schools with start-up costs

·     Expanded preschool programs

·     Awarding outstanding school principals a $5,000 bonus

·     Expand traffic safety zones to include all charter, private and religious schools

Democrats said that the increases in the BSA will help schools regain lost ground and avert massive cutbacks.

“If you don’t mow your lawn all summer, and you do it for the first time in September, you’ve created a mess,” said Rep. Les Gara, (D) Anchorage. “And we’re here to fix the mess that’s been created over the last four years.”

Although Democrats will face some tough odds shepherding these measures through a Republican-controlled Legislature, they said there’s widespread public support for their proposals, which may ultimately bring success.

While Gardner acknowledged it’s unlikely many of these proposals will make it past the gauntlet of legislative hurdles this session, she said seeds have now been planted for future sessions.

“Good things can take a long time to happen. There are lots of examples of that,” said Gardner, who noted there are plenty of cases where a Democrat has introduced a bill and several years later a Republican picks it up, runs with it and the measure becomes law.

“You start and you fight and you don’t care who gets the credit,” Gardner said.

A measure to scrap the high school exit exam is popular in both parties this session, but Gardner said that wasn’t the case when Democrats first raised the issue.

Republican majority leaders in the House seemed less than enthusiastic over the Democrats’ education initiatives, especially over the measures raising the BSA.

“There’s 60 bills here dealing with education on 30 different subjects,” said House Speaker Mike Chenault. “I think the Legislature at the end of the legislative session will put together a package that will address some of those needs, whether we get $405 or whatever fictitious number that’s out there. We’ll see.”

Chenault did express frustration over how Democrats are trying to influence the process through public pressure.

“We’re in the building. We’re doing the work. We’re not having rallies on the front porch. We’re not missing floor sessions so we can go to these things. Our people are here working,” said Chenault, who was referring to Monday’s education rally on the Capitol steps, organized by Democrats.

The Republicans maintain that education funding in Alaska has grown every year, though the increases have been in areas other than the BSA.

The governor’s spokeswoman, Sharon Leighow, said Parnell has not had a chance to review the Democrats’ package.

“However, he is pleased the discussion on education is continuing,” said Leighow in an email. “The governor is hopeful that the minority will join him in supporting more career and technical training, more charter school opportunities, and more residential school opportunities.”

The Democrats will officially introduce their legislation on Friday.

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