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How (and How Much) Should Alaska Pay for its Schools?

Published On: Dec 24 2013 08:35:23 AM AKST   Updated On: Oct 22 2013 10:00:47 PM AKDT
Gov. Sean Parnell

By the time the summer Olympic Games are played in Tokyo in 2020, nine of ten students enrolled in the Anchorage School District will graduate high school. 90 percent of students will attend class, and that will be the proficiency rate of math, reading and writing.

At least that is the plan, touted by the Anchorage School District as "Destination 2020." But school officials told a crowd of city and state policymakers at a Tuesday luncheon their ambitious pursuit is made even more difficult "in the face of flat-funding and continued inflation."

Lawmakers describe debate over a long-term plan to fund schools as one of the most contentious topics moving into next year's legislative session.

ASD eliminated more than 200 positions this year, but whether school funding has actually been as flat as the district describes depends what numbers are counted as "school funding."

Districts receive a set amount of money for each student enrolled in their schools, known as the base student allocation. Since 2011, the BSA has remained stagnant at $5,680 for Anchorage, with rural districts getting more through a system that reflects local costs.

State Rep. Harriett Drummond, a Democrat who attended the luncheon at King Career Center, said the BSA accounts for the bulk of funding that goes directly into the classroom and shows Republican Gov. Sean Parnell and his legislative colleagues have failed to make sure school funding keeps up with inflation. She wants that to change.

"Just as (Parnell) provides inflation proofing for all of his other departments, schools need inflation proofing as well, right in the classroom," Drummond said.

But there have been funding increases in recent budgets to account for rising energy and transportation costs faced by districts. The state also provides funding for construction projects and building upgrades.

"We've increased funding fairly dramatically," Parnell said in an interview with KTUU. "We said, look, we'll give you more money for those energy costs, which leaves money for the classroom.

"We want to see results for the money."

The point where school funding actually starts negatively impacting learning is unclear, according to ASD superintendent Ed Graff. Certainly cuts of teachers hurt, he said, but recent budgets have prompted some departments to be consolidated, and the district is tracking to see what exactly  that means.

"I don't think we can say today what the significance of those changes have been and the impacts, whether they're positive or negative," Graff said.

Parnell said another part of the struggle is that the state has a limited ability to direct the use of funds; terms of collective bargaining agreements are settled between teachers unions and districts, and much of the budgeting process is left to local officials.

"We're simply asking, how do we get to a 90 percent graduation rate?" Parnell said. 

Over the four-course lunch that started with a spring garden salad and ended with crème brûlée and fresh fruit, the early version of the debate over the answer to that question played out.

"But I'm sure we'll talk about this again soon," said a school district leader who wrapped up the event.