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Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell gestures during a news conference he conducted on Thursday, Jan. 23, 2014, in Juneau, Alaska.  Parnell says a per-pupil funding increase would be part of an overall education package he introduces. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)  AP
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Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell gestures during a news conference he conducted on Thursday, Jan. 23, 2014, in Juneau, Alaska. Parnell says a per-pupil funding increase would be part of an overall education package he introduces. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — Gov. Sean Parnell’s education proposal would increase the per-pupil funding formula by about $200 over current levels over three years, a level that critics say is insufficient to meet the needs of districts.

The bill would raise the base student allocation by $85 the first year, from $5,680 to $5,765, and then by $58 each of the next two years, bringing it to $5,881. Parnell’s office, in a release, said the proposed increase was based upon percentage increases in recent public employee contracts.

The total overall cost of the formula increase would be almost $50 million, according to the fiscal note.

The increase is part of an overall education proposal introduced Friday that includes changes that Parnell said are aimed at giving kids more opportunities and parents more choice in options in where to send their kids to school.

The bill, SB139 in the Senate and HB278 in the House, also would replace the high school exit exam with taking the SAT, ACT, or WorkKeys skills test as a requirement to graduate. A student who did not take one of those tests and did not get a waiver but met other graduation requirements would get a “certificate of achievement.” Regulations implementing the test provisions and waiver standards would be left to the state board of education.

The bill also would allow for high school students to test out of classes they’ve proven mastery in and receive course credit. It also would allow charter school applicants denied by local school boards to appeal to the state education commissioner and it addresses residential schools and tax credits for certain education contributions.

Parnell, who had been reluctant to increase the formula in the past, in part citing the need to see greater results, said he was proposing one now as a way to bring the two sides on the funding debate together to have a discussion about education in Alaska.

Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, said he’s a big charter school supporter and agrees with part of what Parnell is proposing. But he said the proposed funding increase falls far short.

“Telling public school children that they have to do with fewer teachers, with bigger class sizes, with less curriculum and fewer job counselors, is telling the next generation we’re basically writing them off,” he said.

The base student allocation has not been raised in several years though lawmakers have approved funding for other, targeted needs, like rising energy costs.

Gara’s office reached out to school superintendents in the Anchorage, Juneau and Fairbanks North Star Borough districts to see what kind of increase they would need to avoid the kind of cuts they’re facing. The responses ranged from about $250 to $425 for next year.

Gara has been among those pushing for an increase in the funding formula. A bill that he and other minority Democrats signed onto last year would have increased the amount by nearly $290 and allow for annual adjustments for inflation. It went nowhere.

Sen. Mike Dunleavy, R-Wasilla, had not studied Parnell’s funding proposal early Friday afternoon. He said a one-size-fits-all approach to education “flies in the face of reality” and that he welcomes discussion about offering more educational options.

Dunleavy is sponsoring 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. Parnell has called on lawmakers to debate that proposal and sent it to voters to let them decide. Critics of the proposal fear it will pull money from the public education system.

“Let’s stop taking about children in terms of how much money they will take out of a system or bring into a system. Let’s ... recognize we want to educate all of these children,” and that will require appropriate resources, delivery models and partners, he said.

Online:

SB139: http://bit.ly/1d1oLPu

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