Alaska House and Senate pass dueling school funding plans

Rep. Dan Ortiz, I-Ketchikan, expresses his views about House Bll 339, an education funding bill, in the Alaska House of Representatives on Saturday. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

Funding for Alaska schools is one of the largest remaining issues for the Legislature this year. The Senate and House majorities’ plans vary significantly in how to do it.

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Both chambers passed bills focused on public education Saturday. House Bill 339 would increase state aid to school districts by $100 per student into the future.

Ketchikan independent Rep. Dan Ortiz voted for the increase. He said the funds would head off larger class sizes.

“It’s very real and very impactful when you start talking about raising class sizes that reduce the opportunity for that individual connection to take place,” Ortiz said.

Districts across the state say teachers and other staff will be cut without the funding. Anchorage schools would lay off 100; Kodiak, 16; and Kenai Peninsula Borough, 11.

Bethel Democratic Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky said the $100 increase would help make long-term school funding more stable.

“I firmly believe that the boom-and-bust economy of Alaska should not translate into a boom-and-bust education system for our youth,” Zulkosky said.

But House minority Republicans opposed the added school funding. Anchorage Republican Jennifer Johnston said financial pressure encourages school districts to change.

“I know it’s a fine line between how much money you have and how much you can transform, but I do know you can’t have transformation with a lot of money,” Johnston said. “We never do; never will.”

The school spending plan included in the Senate bill is different.

That bill — the Senate version of House Bill 287 — would provide a one-time infusion of $30 million in 2020 only, while the House would add slightly more than $25 million every year beginning in the coming school year.

But the Senate would only add the money if the Legislature passes – and Gov. Bill Walker signs – a law to draw Alaska Permanent Fund earnings to pay for state government.

Soldotna Republican Sen. Peter Micciche noted the bill would also assure that the school budget for 2020 would be funded ahead of time.

“This is about forward-funding education,” Micciche said. “Early funding this year, and forward funding education in the future, which would relieve an enormous amount of stress on our districts, on our teachers.”

The fate of school funding could become tied to how the two chambers resolve their differences over the overall state budget.