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Education bill rewrite leaves some frustrated

Posted: April 8, 2014 - 10:05pm

JUNEAU — The broad-ranging education bill that passed the state House after hours of debate seemed to leave few representatives completely satisfied.

Some, like Reps. Alan Austerman. R-Kodiak, and Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, expressed concerns with the proposed spending for education and the sustainability of that funding. Rep. Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage, said his constituents want accountability for how education money is being spent.

“We are not paying for a middle-of-the-road education,” he said in floor debate late Monday. “We’re paying for a very good education and being happy with the middle of the road? I’m not happy with a C.”

Others, including minority House Democrats, wanted more money for schools included to help districts avoid cuts and saw the bill as a missed opportunity for having meaningful, positive impact on public education.

The bill, HB278, underwent significant changes during the course of a floor debate that began late Monday afternoon and culminated in a vote around midnight. Representatives added $30 million in one-time funds for schools on top of a roughly $300 increase over three years in the per-pupil funding formula known as the base student allocation. They also severed from the bill a plan to address the teachers’ retirement system, which Gov. Sean Parnell had urged them to do.

It remained unclear Tuesday just how lawmakers might yet proceed in addressing the unfunded pension obligations for both the teachers’ and public employees’ retirement systems in a session scheduled to end in less than two weeks.

The bill included elements related to charter schools, teacher tenure, certain tax credits for donations to private nonprofit schools, a grading system for school performance and a call for state recommendations on salary and benefits for districts.

It bore a glancing resemblance to the bill originally introduced by Parnell as a way to bring changes to the state’s education system.

The bill passed 29-11, with majority members Wilson and Rep. Mark Neuman of Big Lake joining minority Democrats in voting against it. The lone minority Democrat to vote in support was Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka.

With the bill now before the Senate Finance Committee, Education Commissioner Mike Hanley said Tuesday that he would seek to have provisions related to residential school stipends and the repeal of the high school graduation exam added back in the bill.

He said the bill doesn’t represent significant reforms but steps in the right direction, including with regards to charter school applications and allowing for students to test of our classes they’ve mastered.

Ron Fuhrer, president of NEA-Alaska, a major teachers’ union, said in a statement that while he appreciated the proposed increases in the base student allocation, they don’t alleviate past years of flat-funding the formula and ongoing costs to operate schools, “leaving grave concerns regarding the future of education in Alaska.”

Hanley said any time there is a bill with this many pieces, there will be a small group that supports every one of them.

He was happy to see both the retirement portion and a change in the calculation in the average daily membership to determine state aid for larger schools removed from the bill. The latter would have allowed larger schools to receive more funding under the formula. Both those pieces were added in House Finance.

Parnell in his State of the State address dubbed this the “education session.” While it is still unclear what the final education package might look like, Hanley said the conversations surrounding education this session have been “deeper and broader than we’ve had at any time in recent history.”

But “we certainly can’t stop at the end of session and call it good,” he said. “We have to continue moving forward.”

As part of the overall reform discussion, Hanley said schools need to be looked in the context of the communities in which they operate and the academic, social and physical well-being of children also needs to be taken into account. Children, he said, are “more than test scores.”

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