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Rural Legislators Wary Of Change To School Funding Formula

With the Alaska House of Representatives set to vote on an omnibus education bill Monday night, rural legislators are prepared to fight a change to the funding formula included in the legislation.

The bill increases education funding by $225 million spread out over three years, and it adjusts the formula used to divide that money out in a way that gives urban schools a boost.

Rep. Bryce Edgmon, who chairs the Bush Caucus, says that’s unfair.

“In essence it’s saying that ‘Smaller schools, you don’t need that extra money. You’re doing just fine out there,’” says Edgmon.

The current funding formula takes the base student allocation — or the dollar amount a school gets for each child enrolled — and multiplies it in such a way that a student at the state’s smallest school gets twice as much funding as a student at one of the state’s biggest schools. The idea is those bigger schools can be more cost efficient.

The omnibus bill changes that formula by getting rid of the penalties on the biggest schools. Where the current formula treats a 250-student school differently than a 750-student school, the version before the House treats them the same. The change amounts to a 10 percent boost in the formula for East High in Anchorage, the state’s largest school.

Some of the loudest calls for increased education funding have come from the state’s urban districts. The Anchorage School District is facing a $23 million shortfall, while the Fairbanks North Star Borough and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough are looking at an $8 million budget gap.

But Edgmon says rural districts are hurting, too, even if their budget numbers are not as dramatic.

“What hasn’t risen to the front page is the fact that the smaller schools have already made those cuts,” says Edgmon. “They’ve already laid off a lot essential services.”

Because rural schools do not get an increase in the formula change, Edgmon is worried this could lead to a wide gap in funding down the road. He thinks lawmakers did not get a chance to consider that during the committee process because the change was only introduced last week.

“We went into the K-12 funding formula, and adjusted some of those very complicated provisions there without having the benefit of a study, without having the benefit of some real analysis behind it,” says Edgmon.

Citizens for the Educational Advancement of Alaska’s Children, a coalition of more than 20 school districts, has also come out against the formula change because of concern over a regional disparity. The coalition successfully brought the Kasayulie and Moore lawsuits against the state government, which argued that there was a funding inequity between urban and rural schools.

Urban legislators who advocated for the change to the funding formula say it’s justified because it helps 80 percent of students in the public school system. Anchorage Republican Mia Costello, who was not available for a follow-up interview, told reporters last week that the formula change made it so that urban children were not treated as a “fraction” of a student.

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