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As Education Bill Nears Vote, Lawmakers Brace For Funding Fight

By | April 3, 2014 - 5:46 pm

On Friday, state representatives will vote on a sprawling education bill that deals with everything from school budges to teacher tenure to the establishment of charter schools. Some lawmakers, like Anchorage Democrat Chris Tuck, are already preparing for a marathon session.

TUCK: It’s going to be a long one. I think it’s probably going to be one of the longest bills that we probably take up on the floor this year.

APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports that some of the biggest fights are expected to center around the education funding formula.

On Wednesday, it took the House Finance Committee about six hours to work through more than 20 amendments that members wanted to make to the legislation. There were split votes, a good bit of sniping, and multiple apologies before the group finally moved the bill out of committee that evening.

The process is not expected to be any easier once the bill hits the floor.

At a press conference on Thursday, the Democratic Minority explained that their major concern is that an increase to the base student allocation — the amount of money a school gets per student enrolled — does not go far enough.

“We’ve faced three years of cuts in the past, this extends three more years of cuts — cuts this coming year, and then bigger cuts the following two years when the base student allocation gets smaller,” said Rep. Les Gara, of Anchorage.

The House Finance version of the bill spends an extra $225 million on per-pupil funding over the course of three years, but some of that could cancel out because of a loss of $25 million in one-time funds. Gov. Sean Parnell’s proposal adds just over $100 million to that pot of money over the same period of time.

Rep. David Guttenberg, of Fairbanks, said neither of those figures are enough to prevent layoffs in the state’s biggest school districts.

“I think if you ask them if they’d take a poke in the eye or a kick in the backside, they’ll take whatever they can get over nothing,” said Guttenberg.

The Democrats’ proposal costs about $450 million over three years.

But Republicans in the majority are concerned that a bigger increase than what they are offering could put serious pressure on future budgets.

Rep. Mia Costello, an Anchorage Republican, told reporters on Thursday that education is being treated as an exception as other state agencies are being told to keep their budgets flat.

“We are still prioritizing education while the rest of state government we are cutting,” said Costello. “We’ve been cutting operating budget of state government so that we can continue to fund education increases.”

Costello also argued that their proposal also gives an extra boost to urban schools, where 80 percent of Alaska’s students are enrolled. The House Finance Committee did this by adjusting the education funding formula to weigh the state’s larger schools more generously. The existing funding formula gives rural schools extra funds because costs in remote areas are higher, and rural legislators have expressed concern that changing it could result in a disparity between small and large schools.

The House is expected to debate the education bill at the same time a citizens group made up of parents will be rallying on the capitol steps for more education funding.

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