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Governor's education package to include funding increase

Posted: January 23, 2014 - 9:31pm

JUNEAU — Gov. Sean Parnell said a per-pupil funding increase would be part of an overall education package he plans to introduce as early as Friday.

Parnell told reporters Thursday that if legislators accept his proposal, he would be glad to sign the bill. But he said once they start making changes, which he fully expects as part of the legislative process, then “it becomes a negotiation for Alaska’s benefit.”

In his State of the State address Wednesday, Parnell said if legislators were willing to work with him in passing “real education reform,” he would work with them to authorize an increase in the per-pupil funding formula known as the base-student allocation. That statement was left open for interpretation in the hours that followed.

Ron Fuhrer, president of NEA-Alaska, a major teachers’ union, said it “almost feels like blackmail.” Sen. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, said her takeaway was that Parnell was holding hostage student services to try to force legislators into policy changes some don’t believe will necessarily improve schools.

In his first news conference of the session Thursday, Parnell said real education reform, to him, means more opportunity for kids and more parental choice in options for kids. He said that comes in a range of forms.

His bill, in addition to a proposed formula increase for each of the next three years, would allow for improved access to charter schools and address residential school funding, new career technical opportunities and testing out of classes for course credit, Parnell said. The bill also would propose eliminating the high school exit exam and replacing it with the ACT, SAT or WorkKeys skills test, he said.

Parnell said he had not settled on the proposed level of funding increase in the student formula.

In his speech, Parnell called on legislators to debate and send to voters a proposed constitutional amendment that would strike a provision in Alaska’s Constitution that prohibits the state from using public funds for the direct benefit of private and religious schools. Such a proposal has been pending in the Legislature, with some supporters seeing it as a way of providing parents with more educational options for their kids. Critics fear it could take money away from the public education system.

Parnell said passage of the proposed amendment isn’t a requirement for him to support a funding increase. But he said it becomes part of the negotiation once lawmakers move away from his proposal.

The governor said he expected that separate legislation would have to be passed should an amendment be successful, spelling out the terms of how the amendment would be implemented.

Parnell has been reluctant to support an increase in the base-student allocation in the past, in part citing the need to see greater results. He said his hope in couching his proposal the way he has is to move both sides of the funding debate from their entrenched positions and begin a discussion. But any funding increase has to be tied to “more educational opportunity for our kids,” Parnell said.

The governor said it comes down to this: “I want to see more results for our kids and more results for the people’s money. I understand that the other side sees the BSA increase as the be-all end-all to that. So I’m willing to step forward and say, I will accept something that I did not accept before, which is a way of funding, assuming we can get more opportunity, more access for our kids.”

Gardner told reporters earlier that she took exception to any suggestion that legislators or educators believed that money alone solved problems in education. She said inflation-proofing and adequately funding schools is a component of any successful program.

She also said that data show quality preschool programs, class sizes, high standards and high quality teachers all influence student success.

Gardner said she would never support using state money for private or religious schools and said the governor’s call to allow voters to decide on any constitutional changes seemed a “hollow slogan.” She said the Legislature doesn’t always hold to what the public decides, when they do weigh in on issues through the initiative process.

“I believe we’re elected to do this, and there are some things that are just right and some things wrong,” she said.

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