In his January State of the State address, Gov. Sean Parnell declared the current session of the Legislature to be the “education session.”
But with just over two weeks left in the session, the current debate in Juneau hasn’t been much different than most every other session as lawmakers haggle over the details of temporary fixes and one-time funding sources for public education in Alaska.
This week, members of the House Finance Committee proposed — and then rejected — the addition of $485, over the next three years, to the current per-pupil education funding formula. The committee’s rewrite of Parnell’s education bill includes an increase of $300 over three years; the governor had proposed an increase of $200.
Meanwhile, school districts around the state are facing budget shortfalls to the tune of millions of dollars, and pink slips are being handed out to teachers. The Kenai Peninsula School District is in better shape than others — its projected budget deficit is $4.5 million, and district administration has said that an increase in the base student allocation of $268 would solve its current funding issues.
Solving current issues should be a priority for the Legislature, which is constitutionally tasked with overseeing the delivery of education in Alaska. But addressing future issues — before they overtake the state — should be higher up on lawmakers’ list of things to do.
Simply funneling more money to school districts, whether through increases in formulas or targeted appropriations, isn’t a long-term solution. It’s a Band-Aid. It would stave off the immediate problems for another year and leave quality and delivery of education for another Legislature to address. With the state looking at a decrease in revenue, that might be the best course of action for current lawmakers. A number of education-related bills are still moving through the Legislature, and whether they can be pieced together in an education package by the end of the session remains to be seen.
Providing for meaningful change to public education in a state as diverse as Alaska is a far more complex issue. To do it well requires at least as much focus as the Legislature has spent on oil taxes over the past few sessions — and an argument can be made that Alaska’s children are just as valuable a resource, if not more so.