Facing range of choices, Legislature studies school funding compromise

JUNEAU — Lawmakers will increase school funding this year — but with the majority of the session in the books, no one is saying by how much.

In the fight over the per-student Base Student Allocation, the final result likely will be a compromise between Republican and Democratic proposals. School districts are scheduled to receive $5,680 per student in fiscal year 2014. That amount has not changed since 2011, and school districts say they need more money to balance rising costs.

Republican Gov. Sean Parnell has recommended adding $85 next year and $58 each of the two following years. The Democrat-backed proposal would add $404 this year and automatically increase the per-student payment to follow inflation.

The end result likely won’t be known until the very end of the legislative session, as it’s a significant factor in the overall state budget picture, House Speaker Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, said Wednesday.

“At the end of the day we’ll probably be somewhere north of $85, but south of the $404 the Democrats are asking for,” he said, later adding, “We need to argue about what’s that right amount. Is it $85, $200 or $400 even? But I know if we put $400 in it today, next year they’ll be back wanting more money because the cost of education is going up.”

The challenge, Chenault explained, is balancing increasing the education budget to make up for federal shortfalls with other budgetary needs across the state.

“The Anchorage School District says they’re $25 million short this year — $23 million of that is federal funds,” Chenault said. “The Legislature has been doing their job.”

As the state faces a $2 billion revenue decline, many in the majority party are looking to tighten spending across the board due to the uncertain short-term economic future, Chenault told the Juneau Empire.

“Whether it’s the education budget, the health and social services, transportation — you name the budget — people want to control that budget more to keep the budget from growing and burning through our savings,” he said.

Those who favor a compromise on the Democratic side of the spectrum contend that education funding should be the state’s top priority. Other parts of the budget come later.

“We should say, ‘this is what we do for education come hell or high water,’ and then do whatever else we can,” said Sen. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, one of the architects of the Democrat-backed proposal.

“You do whatever else you can after taking care of the kids,” she added.

Failing to do so, Gardner surmised, will result in other investments being wasted due to the consequences of underfunded education.

“If we want to develop this state and for our children to stay here, it does no good to have thriving industry and good bridges and roads if our kids can’t qualify for the jobs that are here,” Gardner said.

As lawmakers move into the second half the session, Democratic representatives Les Gara of Anchorage and Sam Kito of Juneau released a report last week detailing what each of the state’s six largest school districts would need to offset expected shortfalls.

The average need is just more than $314 per student. Juneau had the greatest need, at $450 per student — beyond even the Democratic proposal.

Proponents of greater school spending say the state needs to make up lost time because it has been “flat-funding” schools since 2011, the last year the Base Student Allocation was raised. The “flat-funding” argument irks Chenault, who says the state has more than kept up with the rate of inflation over the past decade when all state dollars to education are factored in.

“The BSA is just one part of the formula,” Chenault said.

A document prepared by staff to Rep. Alan Austerman, R-Kodiak, shows that school foundation funding increased from $1.063 billion in 2011 to $1.143 billion in 2013.

When factoring state-funded education appropriations for pupil transportation, one-time items, major school maintenance payments and others, the 2011 figure increases to $1.664 billion, and the 2013 figure is $1.9 billion.

That means education funding rose 14 percent in three years of no changes to the BSA. By comparison, the cost of living in Anchorage increased by about 5.5 percent during the same years.

“If we would have inflation-proofed the funding we had for the last 10 years, they would have had considerably less money,” Chenault said.

Education funding is just one of the 30 education-related topics lawmakers are considering. About 60 bills are making their way through the Legislature this session, Chenault said.

“As long as we’re putting money in education, we’re doing the right thing,” he said.

Politicians may differ on the details, but both Democrats and Republicans have called 2014 the education session.

“What’s in the constitution that we have to do first is provide a free public education to all students, and that doesn’t mean just opening a building,” Gardner said. “That means having quality teachers, it means mentoring teachers and it means doing everything we can.”

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