Sen. Shelley Hughes, a Wasilla Republican, held a series of committee hearings on virtual education and school funding beginning last year. It culminated in the release of broad education reform bill.
One of the its 28 provisions limits funding for schools operating below 80 percent capacity. That’s one of several factors that determines how much money schools receive from the state each year.
Juneau School District Superintendent Mark Miller is one of many administrators unhappy with the school-size-funding provision in Senate Bill 96.
“That would force districts like ours to have to shut down schools and bus the kids across town,” Miller said.
The Juneau Empire reported seven out of the district’s 10 traditional schools operated below 80 percent capacity in 2016.
Miller’s staff calculated what the change would mean in dollars.
“It would be a significant hit to our budget,” Miller said. “Over the long run, about $4 million.”
That loss would occur over a 10-year period.
Districts could be facing additional cuts. Senate Republicans said they will reduce public education funding by 5 percent in their budget proposal.
Prior to the release of SB 96, Sen. Hughes said in an interview that Alaska has one of the highest per-student expenditures in the nation, yet results continue to disappoint. Her goal is to reduce administrative costs and boost outcomes at the same time.
Miller doesn’t think it makes a lot of sense to compare Alaska to other states in this context.
“Is education in Alaska expensive? Yes, education in Alaska is expensive. So are the hamburgers,” Miller countered. “Getting things here is expensive and you know we are so spread out that there are a lot of schools with 15 or 20 kids in them … those are expensive to run.”
Hughes’ bill addresses rural school areas by exempting those further 25 miles driving distance of another school from the 80 percent rule.
Rep. Harriet Drummond, an Anchorage Democrat, chairs the education committee in the House.
“There are some good provisions in SB 96,” Drummond said. “But the thing that I know is bothering most people is the school-size-factor piece and that needs to be addressed separately.”
Drummond’s not opposed to changing the state’s school funding formula, but thinks it will take much longer than the two weeks legislators have left before the end of the regular session.
“It needs to be addressed slowly and thoughtfully and not squeezed out of the legislature at the last minute … I’m not going to push it out of my committee. That’s for sure,” Drummond said.
Drummond said she reached out to Sen. Hughes to work on the issue in the interim.
For now the bill remains in the Senate Education Committee, where it has already had seven hearings since its first reading on March 20.