In Juneau, education conference committee continues to meet
Boxes are stacked in the hallways of the Capitol, with more piling up, punctuated by the tearing of strapping tape — all signs the Legislature is in exit mode.
But it’s Day 93, three days past the 90-day deadline for the end of session, and it’s hard to predict when the Legislature will finish work on HB 278, a complicated education bill that aims to give Alaska schools, students and parents more choice.
The Senate and the House are divided on just how to do that.
On Tuesday, a conference committee tasked with reconciling two versions of the bill met twice, followed by closed-door caucus meetings.
A rewrite of the bill — known as a committee substitute — has been released. But it does not address what is most contentious; a disagreement between the House and the Senate over how to fund education.
The committee is made up of three senators and three representatives — Sen. Kevin Meyer, co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and two other finance committee members, senators Mike Dunleavy and Lyman Hoffman. The House committee members are representatives Mike Hawker, Lynn Gattis and Sam Kito, III. Hawker is chairman of the committee because HB 278 originated in the House, though it was extensively rewritten by the Senate Finance Committee.
The House has rejected those changes, so it’s up to the committee to merge the two bills together.
“We are really here to look at those as bookends of our dialogue,” Hawker told the committee at its first meeting on Tuesday. “It’s not my intent to start from scratch. This isn’t one of those where we agree that there’s no hope for what’s there. But what we’ve got are a lot of pieces.”
The pieces include a long list of education reforms, from eliminating the high school exit exam to funding more innovation and technology. The Senate bill puts more money towards those programs, such as increases for Internet services and grants with which students can get tablets like iPads.
The conference committee went through each item in both versions of the bill to find out where both sides might reach agreement.
Hawker said he sees his role as an arbitrator, to “find a common route forward.”
He acknowledged it won’t be easy to reach agreement on education.
“Passions run very deep on it, but it’s what we do here in the Legislature,” Hawker said. “We take those 60 perspectives. We meld them together into a final product that ultimately is acceptable to all sides.”
He told the committee that different approaches to funding schools is “the greatest sticking point in this entire piece of legislation.”
In the House, both Democrats and Republicans are in agreement over using the traditional funding mechanism for education. They only differ on the amounts. Democrats have pushed for a $400 increase in the base student allocation, which is now at $5,680.
In the House version of the bill, the BSA would increase gradually over three years — by $185 next year, and by $58 in each of the two following years.
The BSA is part of a complicated formula the state uses to decide how much to spend per student. Once money goes into the BSA, it remains a part of the formula — and that’s what the Senate doesn’t like.
It wants to scrap the BSA and the suite of formulas that go with it.
The House says that’s a bad idea because it would make school funding unpredictable.
The Senate plan actually includes more money for education over the next three years; money lawmakers say is equivalent to a $300 increase in the BSA in each of those years.
Dunleavy is one of the hardliners in the Senate on the BSA, which he calls a flawed funding mechanism that stifles innovation.
“You really don’t get any change unless funding leads the change in education,” Dunleavy said. “Change doesn’t come from within these systems, especially education.”
Dunleavy envisions a future more oriented towards correspondence courses and distance learning, where the teacher has a different role.
“I think we can compromise,” Dunleavy said. “I know these folks are really fixated on the BSA. I’m getting phone calls from folks that are educators in the state of Alaska. If you put this money in the BSA, you will never change.”
The Senate’s bill includes a study to review the state’s recipe for funding schools and perhaps create a new one.
During the conference committee hearing, Kito questioned the Senate’s vision for education.
“I think we are always going to be in a situation where we do have neighborhood schools,” he said. “I want to make sure we don’t over-incentivize programs that take emphasis away from providing education to those students that are in those neighborhood schools.”
The House’s vision appears to be more focused on stabilizing school staffing than the Senate’s.
Meyer said the Senate bill may spend more money on education, but its long-range goal is keep costs from growing. He said investment in technology and other programs outside the traditional classroom may lead to savings.
“I think what you’re seeing on the Senate side is a pretty heavy finance interest,” Meyer said. “Even the members on the conference committee are all finance members.”
The Senate’s bill has some other elements the House may have trouble with. It reduces the rate of reimbursement for school construction and raises the amount of local contributions for education, which means municipalities and boroughs may wind up passing on those increases to taxpayers.
Representatives from the grassroots group Great Alaska Schools sat in the packed gallery Tuesday, watching the conference committee proceedings.
They’ve donated their own time and money to track education spending. They are also pushing for a $400 increase in the BSA next year, and $125 in each of the following two years.
“It’s very hard to tell what’s going to come out of committee,” said Jessie Menkens, a parent who has a son in the Anchorage School District. “We’re remaining hopeful. There are parents across the state watching and waiting.”
The group sent out a poll Tuesday asking its membership about school funding and within hours received 1,000 responses.
For now, a compromise between the two bodies remains a work in progress.
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