Alaska’s state House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved a bill to separate public school funding from the state’s operating budget on Wednesday night.

House Finance Committee co-chair Paul Seaton’s HB 287 calls for a separate $1.3 billion appropriation.

Seaton wants to give districts funding by May 1, every year. That’s early enough to draft their budgets and avoid pink slips.

Most lawmakers have come to agree school districts would benefit from early funding. However, they disagreed on how to pay for it during an afternoon debate

The House majority wanted to use money from a savings account called the Constitutional Budget Reserve but it takes a three-quarters vote, not a simple majority. That provision failed on a separate vote, 20-18.

The minority want to use revenue from the state’s general fund, which comes mostly from oil production.

The bill still goes to the Senate for consideration, but even if the Senate agrees to the premise, it remains to be seen what funding source will be used.

The two sides debated an amendment that would have changed Seaton’s funding from the CBR to the general fund. The amendment failed.

“If we are going to rely on that as a funding mechanism, then we are going to need to be a lot more powerful than we are today,” said House Rep. Geran Tarr (D-Anchorage). “What we know is we have no control over oil prices. Relying on something that volatile, I think endangers public education.”

Rep. Steve Thompson (R-Fairbanks), serves on the House Finance Committee, however, supported the amendment offered by fellow minority member Jennifer Johnston (R-Anchorage).

“This might be a little premature in my opinion; to force a three-quarter vote this early to me is wrong,” Thompson said. “I feel like we should be taking it from the general fund that will have plenty of money to fulfill the school districts’ needs.”

The Senate is considering a similar bill that would require the Legislature to fund education separately but that wouldn’t begin until next session.

SB 131 is sponsored by Gary Stevens (R-Kodiak).

Sen. Tom Begich (D-Anchorage) said before the House vote that early funding for public educations becoming more urgent.

“It gives our districts a chance to compete for teachers around the country more readily,” Begich said. “When you know you have a stable budget and you know you have income coming in, you can go to those (job) fairs where you recruit teachers and you can get some of the best... We missed the opportunity for some of the best now because that instability doesn’t allow our districts to make promises that they could otherwise make in terms of future educational opportunities for some of those teachers. We end up having less of a pool to pick from.”

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