House approves next two years of K-12 funding, hoping to avoid uncertainty for schools

The revolving door of layoff notifications has become an unfortunate annual tradition for many teachers and school districts as the Legislature fails time and again to pass a budget before districts are required to let teachers know there might not be funding for their jobs. 

While those notices get rescinded (for the most part) when the budget is eventually passed, it’s a problem that’s been regularly cited by districts, teachers and teacher unions as a driver in the state’s overall inability to recruit and retain teachers. 

Hoping to avoid the uncertainty as they head into the overall budget, the House voted 26-14 today to approve legislation that would approve the budget for K-12 education over the next two years. The legislation is based off the existing base student allocation funding formula, meaning funding will stay the same on a per-student basis as long as there’s no changes to that law. 

Rep. Mike Cronk, a Tok Republican who caucuses with the minority, recalled his decades of teaching and lobbying the Legislature not for increased funding but stable funding. He said the instability drove good teachers away. 

“Living in a small community, teaching in a small district, we valued our teachers and I saw way too many of my friends and good teachers have to leave because of uncertainty and budgets,” he said. “These were people that wanted to be part of our community, they wanted to live there. When you’re in a small community that is very hard to get, having the consistency of teachers that actually want to stay and live there.”

But Cronk was in the minority of the minority Republicans. Most opposed the measure. Many claimed support for schools and teachers but said that it’s unfair to prioritize schools over other spending like the dividend. Some claimed it was a “blank check” for schools because the legislation doesn’t contain a specific number, which drew much opposition from the measure’s supporters who noted that the funding level is set in state law and varies depending on enrollment. 

“We’ve talked about this being a blank check for education. This is not a blank check for education,” said Rep. Calvin Schrage, I-Anchorage. “This is us paying the check that’s written by the base student allocation. If we want to adjust the impact on future year’s budgets, we can adjust that formula. That’s something we have the purview to do through the committee process. This bill, as amended, simply creates the mechanism and provides the assurance that we will pay those school districts the money that we’ve promised them.”

Other minority Republicans suggested that between the status quo funding and the federal aid that the state may actually be overfunding schools without any oversight or expectation for better results. Rep. Sara Hannan, D-Juneau, took issue with the claims that teachers and districts would take the money and, in her words, “put their feet up and eat bonbons” because there are enormous challenges facing schools regardless of their funding levels.

“We know that every school in Alaska will be struggling in the aftermath of covid, with inequities they saw arise, special programs, declines in learning measures from students who struggled during covid in distance delivery,” she said. “The very minimum we could and should do is promise them that we will meet the obligation to fund schools and we know they will be employed this year and next year.” 

The measure passed the House on a 26-14 vote. The House Coalition all voted in favor of the measure as did unaligned Republican Rep. Sara Rasmussen and minority Republican Reps. Cronk, Bart LeBon, Steve Thompson and Ken McCarty. 

What’s next: The Legislation now goes to the Senate for consideration. During a House Coalition news conference, leadership said the idea to separate education funding from the rest of the budget originated from the Senate so they hoped it would pass quickly. It’s not quite so simple, though, as the practice of forward funding measures is currently before the Alaska Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments over the constitutionality of such a measure passed in 2018 earlier this month.

On the legislative level, the House Coalition leadership said they plan to pivot quickly to the rest of the state operating budget and the permanent fund dividend. House Finance Committee co-chair Rep. Neal Foster, D-Nome, told reporters that he planned to introduce a long-awaited committee substitute for the bill on Friday and take up amendments on the bill the following week. He said the status of federal pandemic relief money is a key issue that will be considered, adding that he planned to roll the all potential spending of the money into the operating budget rather than split it out in its own bill. There’s debate about how to spend the money with a push and pull between creating new relief-focused spending or using it to address the state’s budget deficit. 

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