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Senate Finance advances education bill

Posted: April 19, 2014 - 8:17pm

JUNEAU — The Senate Finance Committee advanced a broad-ranging education bill Saturday that adds more money to public education and raises the required local contribution for schools.

The committee has proposed $100 million in extra funding for districts over the next three years, in addition to support for charter schools, residential schools, correspondence programs and other initiatives within House Bill 278. The $100 million for next year would include $25 million that had already been proposed in the budget. The funding — which would be included in the budget — would be distributed to districts outside the per-student funding formula, a sore spot with critics, including some parents, who believe extra funding in the formula ensures it’s there and helps districts plan.

But some lawmakers say the formula needs to be examined. The committee, in its rewrite of the bill, proposes a study of how the state funds education. Co-chairman Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, has said the three-year funding plan comes with the expectation it will take time to delve into the issue.

A vote on the bill was pending, with the end of the 90-day session scheduled for Sunday. Whatever passes the Senate will have to be approved in the House, or the bill could go to a conference committee.

Meyer said the legislation, which builds off the measure initially proposed by Gov. Sean Parnell, aims to give more choices in education, provide more resources and incentivize districts to do things differently.

The measure calls for a grant program to encourage innovative approaches to learning. It also includes provisions to allow students to test out of certain courses they’ve mastered, such as math, science and world languages, and to repeal the high school exit exam, replacing it with a college or career readiness test. It calls for funding to improve Internet service for schools with lower download speeds.

It also borrows from a bill introduced by Sen. Mike Dunleavy as a companion to a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow public money to go to private or religious schools. It would allow for parents to use student allotments through public correspondence programs to buy materials and services from public, private or religious organizations if they are required for a course in a student’s individual learning plan, approved by a district and in line with state standards. The proposed constitutional amendment stalled for lack of support.

HB 278 also raises the required local contribution level for schools and also allows for greater voluntary contributions by municipalities. Meyer said that speaks to a shared responsibility for schools.

The measure removes provisions that would extend from three years to five years the time it takes for a teacher in larger communities to attain tenure.

Gov. Sean Parnell offered praise for the plan.

“With this legislation, not only will we increase funding for public schools, Alaska’s students will have more career and technical training opportunities, and more charter school opportunities,” he said in a statement.

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