FAIRBANKS — The state Senate majority on Monday rolled out its school funding plan, which features a 5 percent cut to per-student K-12 funding, that its leaders say will improve education statewide.
The proposed operating budget would cut about $69 million from the state base student allocation, a figure that’s used to determine how much funding schools receive for each student, as the state grapples with a multibillion-dollar budget gap.
Majority Leader Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, defended the Senate’s actions in a news conference Monday morning. He agreed the cuts are a response to the budget, but he framed them as part of a broad effort to rework public education.
“We feel that a reset is required,” he said. “That is not a hit on individual teachers or individual districts; some of the districts are very highly performing. We want to do what we can so Alaska has the best educational system in the country.”
The announcement came alongside bills aimed at easing the impact of the cuts by moving money from the state’s college scholarship program into specific uses for K-12 schools.
The Senate’s $69 million cut to the per-student education funding will not be well-received in the House, which passed an operating budget without such a cut and ultimately tabled a proposal that would have cut state funding for school building projects.
“We are committed to fully funding the Base Student Allocation in the final budget,” House Majority Leader Rep. Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, said in a statement. “Our coalition has made public education a priority, and we will not sacrifice the future of our children for some short-term savings.”
Rep. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks, called the Senate’s proposed cuts “unacceptable and unjustified” and said education has been one of the top priorities he’s heard from his constituents.
“During my town hall meetings, many desired us to fight against the last several years of education cuts,” he said. “They recognize, as do I, that class size increases, cuts to the BSA and a transfer of state responsibility to local taxpayers is not the answer. We’ve seen kids do great things, but further cuts endanger their opportunity to succeed.”
The education cut underlines a simmering feud between the House and Senate over the fiscal situation. Both parties, and Gov. Bill Walker, are largely in agreement that restructuring the earnings of the Alaska Permanent Fund to pay for government should be part of the solution. The House and governor, however, would like additional sources of income — such as an income tax — while the Senate is adamant the permanent fund is enough of a solution.
Last week, Senate President Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, said the Senate isn’t even open to negotiating on an income tax until the House passes one.
The same message was echoed Monday. Micciche suggested if people are worried about cuts, they should be urging the House to pass the Senate’s permanent fund restructure in Senate Bill 26.
Alongside the $69 million cut, the Senate put forward three new bills related to education Monday.
Though two were squarely aimed at softening the blow of the cut to the per-student funding, the bills were pitched as reforms that can help Alaska catch up with other states in academic indicators.
“There are many schools that are just not achieving what we hoped to achieve,” said Sen. Anna MacKinnon, R-Anchorage, co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee.
One bill would put a statewide review of curriculum on hold and urge districts to work with the state to develop best teaching practices.
A pair of bills are intended to ease the impact of the $69 million cut to the per-student funding by increasing financial assistance for rural internet upgrades and creating a competitive innovation grant.
Sen. Shelley Hughes, a Palmer Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee, explained the innovation grants.
“I know the (BSA) reduction is a hard pill to swallow, I get that,” she said. “That’s 5 percent — that nickel on the dollar — please take note in the $100 million in the Alaska Education Innovation Grant. That will become available as districts become creative, outside-of-the-box, innovative to allow them to do more with less.”
Hughes said it would be up to districts to work with the state to develop projects eligible for the funding, but distance delivery and online courses appeared to be her priorities.
“Virtual education will help beam great teachers across the state,” she said.
The two programs would be funded with the remaining money put in place for the Alaska Performance Scholarship, a merit-based scholarship for Alaska high school graduates to college or training in Alaska. The legislation would allow students receiving the scholarship or current high school seniors to receive the scholarship. The program has about $100 million.
This is the second year in a row the Senate Finance Committee, co-chaired by MacKinnon, has targeted the Alaska Performance Scholarship to essentially pay for cuts elsewhere.
Last year, the committee proposed a slate of four bills that would have scaled back state programs that provide direct funding to local communities and would have softened the blow by cashing out the Alaska Performance Scholarship.
Those pieces of legislation, including the end of the scholarship, were widely unpopular with communities and most proposals found little traction.
Contact staff writer Matt Buxton at 459-7544. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.