The Alaska Senate Finance committee heard a trio of bills aimed at bridging the achievement gap and improving education in the face of the budget crisis on Monday.
The three bills, Senate Bills 102, 103 and 104, would boost broadband capacity, establish innovation grants and allow districts a reprieve from curriculum review, respectively.
The most controversial of the bills, SB103, calls for the elimination of the Alaska Performance Scholarship and the Alaska Education Grant, to instead focus funds toward the benefit of all students through innovation grants, according to a press release from the office of Senate Finance Committe Co-chair Sen. Anna McKinnon (R-Eagle River).
“Student outcomes are not where we hoped they would be,” said Brittany Hutchinson, staff to Sen. MacKinnon, during the senate hearing. “As public stewards of state money, and since it is our constitutional requirement to provide and maintain a K-through-12 system, our money should be prioritized in making sure that our K-to-12 students are prepared for life after high school and with limited funds, this is the ideal option for that.”
Currently, the performance scholarship is available to students who meet high academic standards, including a certain grade point average and a rigorous curriculum. A student can receive up to $4,755 to pay for college or career training in Alaska, according to the scholarship’s website.
“I believe there’s been results that we’ve seen across the state in terms of more rigorous curriculum being implemented in our high schools because of the Alaska Performance Scholarship,” Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Superintendent Sean Dusek said during a Key Communicator Address on Thursday.
The Alaska Education Grant provides need-based financial assistance, from $500 to $4,000, to students attending qualifying postsecondary education institutions in Alaska.
Both the grant and scholarship were established by the Legislature in 2012, and the bill would begin phasing them out immediately, with the graduating class of 2017 being the last group of students eligible for the funds.
The bill would utilize the moneys previously allocated to the grant and scholarship into the Alaska Education Innovation Grant Fund which “provides grants for districts who work with the Department of Education to transform how they deliver education to their students,” Hutchinson said.
“This new fund is how we plan to prioritize our current moneys to best benefit K-through-12 education,” she said.
Some of these innovations are addressed in SB 102 and 104.
SB 102 would provide funding for the School Broadband Assistance Grant program to increase internet download speeds from 10 megabits-per-second (Mpbs) to 25 Mpbs, which would greatly increase access in rural areas and provide faster connectivity to schools throughout Alaska.
Currently the internet connectivity shared throughout the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District is 800 Mpbs, but connections at individual schools vary from 6 Mbps to 300 Mbps, based on infrastructure and school size, said school district spokesperson Pegge Erkeneff.
SB 102 would allow for 197 schools across Alaska to be brought up to 25 Mbps, Hutchinson said.
SB 104 gives districts a three year reprieve from curriculum review, while also making the each district’s curriculum available to be used by another district, if they choose, in hopes of saving smaller school districts time and money, Hutchinson said. The bill also calls for the Department of Education and Early Development to work with the state’s Board of Education to create a “best curriculum” to be adopted and made available to school districts.
“SB 104 just expands on what we’re already doing with the (Digital Teaching Initiative) grant,” Superintendent Dusek said, which assists in improving online curriculum and allows for an exchange of curriculum with partner districts, such as Bristol Bay and Cordova, and others involved in the grant.
“So the big drawback (for the district) comes from SB 103… SB 103 puts in grants for innovation across the state of Alaska, that drives what is going to happen in 102 and 104,” Dusek said. “SB 103 is very troubling because they’re just basically robbing Peter to pay Paul.”
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