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House expected to unveil education spending plan

By Rhonda McBride 8:00 AM April 1, 2014

With less than three weeks left in the 2014 legislative session, the race is on to come up with a legislative spending plan for education.

The House Finance Committee is expected to roll out legislation Tuesday that would include increases in the Base Student Allocation — the amount the state spends per student — which currently stands at about $6,000. The BSA is one component of how the state funds education.

Last week, the Senate Finance Committee said it would increase education funding by $100 million over last year’s level. This includes a $25 million increase already in the budget.

Sen. Pete Kelly, one of the co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said there would also be a $100 million increase the following year.

So would this increase go towards the BSA? If it did, it would increase it by about $300. Proponents of increased education funding are pushing for a $400 increase. The governor has recommended an $85 boost in the BSA.

“The greatest purpose of it was to give us time over the next two years to look at education funding while not arguing about money,” Kelly said.

Kelly said the finance committee simply put the money on the table, but has not dictated exactly how it will be spent. The money wouldn’t necessarily go to the BSA, he said.

He said it’s hard to say how the money will be distributed across the various components of education funding.

“There’s so many pieces in motion right now,” Kelly said. “That’ll be an agreement between the bodies. That’ll be a larger discussion.”

Rep. Mia Costello, an Anchorage Republican who is a member of the House Finance Committee, said the language of the legislation her committee is introducing was still being worked on by legislative attorneys Monday. But she believes the public will be happy with the final result.

“We are here to listen and we are working on some of the concerns we have heard this session,” Costello said. “I am encouraged by the engagement of the public.”

Costello was one of a number of lawmakers who were bombarded with cell phone messages from people attending a rally on Saturday at the Loussac Library in Anchorage.

Costello’s staff logged 68 calls urging her to increase education spending.

Great Alaska Schools, the group that organized the rally, said it counted 850 people who participated in the event over the course of the afternoon — several hundred more than at a previous rally.

This week the group has a delegation in Juneau, monitoring the progress of education legislation.

Alyse Galvin, a parent of children in the Anchorage School District, said she’s using airline miles and her own savings to be here.

“I have a jar of coins on my counter that I call my dream jar and I’ve emptied that out,” Galvin said.

Organizers said Great Alaska Schools — formed in January — now has about 1,200 supporters, up from last week’s 1,000 members. They said most of the members are parents.

Galvin said she expects those numbers to grow after a rally the group is planning in Juneau this week.

Alison Arians, another organizer, said the group wants to capitalize on its momentum and keep up the pressure.

“We’re not angry. We just really want the legislators to know we care about our kids’ education,” Arians said. “When people really care about an issue, we will do just about anything we can to make this work. I mean, you are talking about our kids. That’s something we will go to the mat for.”

Rep. Les Gara, an Anchorage Democrat and member of the House Finance Committee, believes Great Alaska Schools could be the tipping point in the education spending debate.

“Usually parents are busy with their day to day lives. When they start taking to the street, I think this really helps,” Gara said. “When parents get involved, then you know you probably have done something wrong.”

Gara is hopeful that the BSA can be raised to avoid more teacher and support staff layoffs.

Gara said the Senate Finance Committee’s first year of increased funding falls short of fixing the problem. The second year amounts to flat funding.

Kelly said lawmakers are unwilling to write educators a blank check — that they want to know what kind of improvements they’ll see for their money.

“We also want to be able to go over the years and find some substantial innovations and structural changes in education that gives a better product,” Kelly said.

Gara said it’s wrong to pass judgement on an educational system that’s underfunded.

“They cut school staff three years in a row and they expect schools to improve by cutting staff three years in a row,” Gara said. “That’s like knee-capping a kid and asking him to run faster.”

House majority leaders initially resisted pressure to increase education funding, because they say it has risen every year — and the BSA is not a true indicator of what the state spends on schools.

Kelly applauded the Senate Finance Committee for its spending plan, which he said took a lot of creativity in a year with a $2 billion revenue shortfall. He also said it should be noted that the money was carved out of the budgets of other state agencies.

As for Great Alaska Schools, they’ll be watching what happens this week.

“As a parent, I’ve learned it’s complex,” Galvin said. “Even though they say you’ve got more money, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to translate into what we’re looking for.”

“The end result is we want to make sure our kids get what they need in class,” she said.

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