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Lawmakers announce tentative deal on education

Posted: April 23, 2014 - 10:24pm

JUNEAU — Lawmakers late Wednesday announced a tentative deal on an education package, the issue that sent them into an extended legislative session.

The compromise, unveiled in a conference committee Wednesday evening, calls for $300 million in additional public school spending over the next three years. Half that amount, $150 million, would go toward the per-pupil funding formula known as the base student allocation, amounting to an increase in the formula of $250 over the three years. The rest would be provided to districts outside the formula.

The committee — comprised of three senators and three representatives — planned to take up its rewrite of the bill, which also includes support for charter, residential and correspondence schools, on Thursday. It would then have to go to the House and Senate for a concurrence vote. Heading into the day, education was the last major piece to be resolved. The capital budget was pending, too, but the holdup there had to do with attaching any extra school funding.

However, later in the night, the House voted down a Senate plan for funding the Knik Arm crossing project, setting up a possible conference committee on that issue.

The lead negotiators on the education package, Sen. Kevin Meyer and Rep. Mike Hawker, both Anchorage Republicans, called it a good compromise. The Senate majority had proposed $100 million in additional aid over three years, plus support for other programs and initiatives. The House proposed an increase of about $300 over three years in the formula and $30 million in one-time funds outside it.

Hawker said there were members of his Republican-led caucus who weren’t happy with the compromise, “which probably means we’ve reached a good settlement.” He said some representatives wanted less overall spending and more in the base student allocation. But he said “one always has to be careful not to let the perfect be the enemy of the possible, and I think what we’ve done here is what’s possible.”

Meyer said: “I think this amount will be adequate — I’ll find out from my school district tomorrow — to take care of their deficits and maybe not have to lay off teachers.”

Gov. Sean Parnell, who said he worked with legislators on the issue and had a large easel in his office outlining the numbers in the compromise bill, said lawmakers should be proud of the work they’ve done this session, including on education.

The compromise also included provisions allowing for students to test out of core courses they’ve mastered and funding to improve Internet service for schools with lower download speeds. It did away with a Senate proposal to raise the local required contribution for schools and called for studies of how the state pays for education.

Many public-school advocates favor putting additional money into the formula, saying it gives districts a predictable amount of funding around which to budget and is comparable to a permanent raise. Minority Democrats have endorsed raising the base student allocation by about $650 over three years to help districts stave off cuts, a position supported by groups like Great Alaska Schools and the Alaska Federation of Natives.

Minority Democrats said the funding in the conference committee plan fell short. Sens. Hollis French and Bill Wielechowski of Anchorage, who were poring over spreadsheets breaking down the numbers after the committee adjourned for the night, expressed frustration.

“In the year of education, education came last,” an exasperated French said, repeating a phrase he’d used earlier in the day.

Much of the day Wednesday was marked by delayed meetings and floor sessions, while majority caucuses met and talks continued between Meyer and Hawker.

“Still herding cats,” Hawker said, as he went back and forth with proposals.

Failure to reach agreement on an education package by the scheduled end of session Sunday sent lawmakers into overtime. The main sticking point had been funding, and particularly whether money is inside or outside the base student allocation.

The Republican-led Senate majority favored keeping additional money outside the base student allocation, which some lawmakers argue is broken and in need of review. Members of the House majority pushed for at least partial funding inside the formula.

The stalemate came during what Republican Gov. Sean Parnell called the “Education Session,” which has already been extended three days beyond the voter-mandated 90-day limit. Under the constitution, lawmakers can meet for up to 121 days.

Other issues competed for lawmakers’ attention during the session, like a bill to set state participation in a major liquefied natural gas project.

Parnell’s original version of HB278 also competed for committee time with other education-related proposals. The Senate Finance Committee waited for the House to send over its rewrite of the bill, which it did April 7, and the committee advanced its final rewrite of the bill April 19, which was scheduled to be the second-to-last day of the session.

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