Education stalemate in House and Senate ends
A compromise over education spending came on the third day of an extended session. Lawmakers steamrolled past their 90-day session on Sunday night because the Senate and House couldn’t reach agreement on how much to spend — and how to spend it.
On Wednesday night, a conference committee of three senators and three representatives announced what their new version of House Bill 278 would include.
The new bill kept many of the education reforms but melded the spending plans of both bodies.
“There’s been a lot of discussions and negotiations among our caucuses,” said Rep. Mike Hawker, who chaired the conference committee. “And I believe we have a solution that will come forward ultimately.”
The House had fought to put any new education dollars into the base student allocation, part of a formula the state has used for many years to fund education. The Senate wanted money appropriated outside the BSA, because once any new funding is added to it the increase is permanent.
Hawker called the compromise the $300 million solution.
“We have $300 million that is going to go into education, $100 million in each of the next three years, split evenly between the BSA and outside the BSA,” Hawker said.
The BSA is now at $5,680 per student, a number which can increase considerably once adjustments are made for geographical differentials and other factors.
Advocates for more school spending have been pushing for a $404 boost in the BSA next year, and $125 in each of the next two years.
The Republican majority said the compromise spending plan equates to a $348 increase next year, with $356 in each of the following two years.
“This is truly a good compromise bill,” said Sen. Kevin Meyer, co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.
“It’s a give and take process,” Meyer said. “My guys aren’t totally happy, but there are also some good reform items in here that truly can and will hopefully change ways we’ll teach our children.”
Meyer said it would at least give parents and children more options.
Sen. Mike Dunleavy, one of the main architects of the Senate’s plan, said the spending of money appropriated outside the BSA will be determined at the local level.
He acknowledged the plan, which forward-funds education for three years, is a new approach to spending.
“The only thing I ask folks is they not be afraid of change,” said Dunleavy, who asked that they also go one step further and actually “look at things differently.”
“In the end,” Dunleavy said. “It’s probably going to serve all our kids well.”
Democrats say money has been shuffled around, so the increase is not as big as it appears.
They also say it’s not enough to help schools keep up with inflation and prevent teacher layoffs.
“Because you have a few crumbs on your plate you should be happy? Look children, there’s a few crumbs on your plate,” questioned Senate Minority Leader Hollis French.
“What’s the right thing to do? Fund our schools, so we don’t have to lay off teachers. Fund our schools so we have small class size.”
French said parents should be concerned about funding outside the BSA, which is vulnerable.
“We’ve gone up and down in our annual appropriations, so when you look at an annual appropriation like this, this money is outside the BSA,” French said. “That’s money I think is at far greater risk than the money that’s protected inside.”
Great Alaska Schools, which formed in January and now counts more than 2,200 members, had pushed to put more in the BSA.
Alyse Galvin, one of the group’s organizers, said the funding will help but it won’t slow down the erosion in school staffing.
“We’re not going to be able to keep the teachers in our schools. We’re still going to have cuts,” Galvin said. “Maybe in the first year, we’ll have only half the cuts that we expected to have. But there will still be cuts, and the year after that it’s deeper.”
Gavin said the compromise spending plan is disappointing, given how much the Legislature has spent in other areas.
But Galvin said that while the session may soon will soon be over, the grassroots parent group will keep going.
“We recognize that we have a lot of work for the next session, so we can come up with a solution that we know is going to lock-in and secure the funds that are necessary,” Galvin said.
“We’re in it. We’re ready. We’re going to the mat and can’t wait to be part of this, to keep this discussion going,” she said.
The Senate and the House must approve the new version of the bill — which could happen sometime Thursday — so the Legislature can gavel out.
One other bill could push back adjournment. The House rejected the Senate version of HB 23, which funds the Knik Arm bridge. The vote was close, 20-18, with two lawmakers absent — Rep. Bob Lynn and Rep. Lora Reinbold. A conference committee was formed to resolve the differences.