House to vote on funding K-12 education through next two years

The Alaska Capitol Building.

The Alaska House is set to take up legislation that would not only settle K-12 funding ahead of what’s expected to be a drawn-out fight over this year’s budget but would fund education through 2023.

House Bill 169 was put forward by the House Finance Committee to fund K-12 education outside of the regular operating budget. Its backers intend for the measure to spare school districts, teachers and students from yet another round of uncertainty and pink slips that typically comes along with the Legislature’s slow passage of the budget. The vote is expected on Thursday.

School districts are required to notify teachers of potential layoffs by about mid-May if they’re unsure about their funding, which has been triggered thanks to the Legislature’s passage of the budget in May or later in recent years. The provision is intended to allow affected teachers to seek work with other districts ahead of the upcoming school year’s deadlines, but many school districts have cited the annual issuing and rescinding of pink slip notifications as a key driver behind challenges with recruiting and retaining teachers.

The measure doesn’t propose increasing funding and would pay it out according to the base student allocation formula in state law.

Today, on a vote of 25-14, the House today approved an amendment to the bill by Anchorage Republican Rep. Sara Rasmussen, who doesn’t caucus with either the House Coalition or minority Republicans, to not only settle K-12 funding for the upcoming budget year but the year following it. It would budget education through June 30, 2023.

“Over the last year, students have faced many obstructions due to the pandemic and I think that it’s incredibly important that the Legislature provide some stability in funding for the districts, most importantly for the students,” she said. “Unfortunately, the operating budget has become a process that can be quite drawn out and when we don’t pass the operating budget by May 15, the districts are forced to send layoff notices.”

The measure had crossover support from minority Republican Reps. Bart LeBon, Mike Cronk and Steve Thompson, who all represent the Interior. The Fairbanks North Star Borough School District’s budget situation is particularly dire and before the arrival of the latest round of had anticipated cutting more than 200 positions (it now expects about a dozen layoffs). Both Cronk and LeBon spoke in favor of the change, citing personal experience teaching and on the school board.

“I think back 20 years ago walking the halls of this building as school board president from Fairbanks,” LeBon said. “I wasn’t asking for more money, I wasn’t asking for an enhancement to the BSA or the funding formula, but rather I was asking for early funding so we could address our budget in Fairbanks in a timely manner and not send out the layoff notices to teachers.”

Other minority Republicans were opposed to the amendment and signaled their opposition to the underlying bill during today’s debate. Some argued that the one-page bill was too short while others argued that the addition of Rasmussen’s amendment—an additional page—would make the bill too long. Mostly, the minority Republicans argued that the measure would tie the Legislature’s hands for too long in the event that cuts to education might be needed in the coming year.

The Legislature has previously funded education on a multi-year basis, but whether or not that’s constitutional is an issue currently before the Alaska Supreme Court. Gov. Mike Dunleavy, whose first budget proposed a roughly 25% cut to education, kicked off a legal challenge against the forward funding of education, arguing that it was a violation of the Alaska Constitution’s prohibition on dedicated funds (though Dunleavy would later propose forward funding the dividend). The Alaska Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case earlier this month.

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