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Report knocks 1998 education funding rewrite

Posted: Tuesday, January 16, 2001

JUNEAU (AP) -- The Department of Education and Early Development called Monday for a repeal of part of the Legislature's 1998 rewrite of the formula allocating state aid to local school districts.

The bitterly contested funding formula adjusts for the different costs of providing education in different parts of the state.

Three years ago, the Republican-controlled Legislature passed Senate Bill 36 to direct more money to urban districts. Urban lawmakers argued that Bush schools were getting an unfairly large share.

Although millions in new money cushioned the blow to rural schools, that cushion was designed to erode as enrollment grew. The formula allocates less money per new student to some rural districts.

Rural lawmakers and other Democrats, including Gov. Tony Knowles and Education Commissioner Shirley Holloway, argue the so-called eroding floor values kids in the Bush at only 60 cents on the dollar.

''There are some districts that are experiencing a decrease because of this element of the formula,'' said Holloway as the department issued a report on the impact of Senate Bill 36 that calls for the repeal of the floor.

In general, schools in the Bush need more money per student than urban schools to compensate for higher costs for heat, electricity and other basics. Deciding just how much more provokes bitter fights in the Legislature when the formula is revisited.

The lawmakers who backed Senate Bill 36 said they were unwilling to budge on the eroding floor, which was part of a compromise that avoided immediate cuts in aid to rural districts.

''To eliminate the floor fails to recognize the weaknesses in the prior formula,'' said Sen. Gary Wilken, R-Fairbanks, one of the bill's sponsors.

The department's report also recommends against changing the rest of the formula until a better method can be devised to determine the differences in costs between districts, pleasing Republicans opposed to a a wholesale revision of the funding formula this year.

''We're not ready for that yet, we need better information,'' Wilken said.

Senate Bill 36 was based on a study of how districts spend money. The department recommended a system to measure the underlying elements of school costs, not just what districts pay, pleasing those unhappy with the original study.

''It's how people are spending money, not necessarily how much it costs. That's a huge concern,'' said Rep. Gretchen Guess, D-Anchorage, a freshman lawmaker who worked as an aide to Holloway during the debate over Senate Bill 36. ''That's a huge concern. If someone did something that's extremely efficient, they could maybe get docked for it.''

The department's report also recommended adding a provision to the formula that would protect school districts against big drops in state support caused by steep declines in enrollment.

Finally, the report recommended increasing school funding overall to make up for losses to inflation in the past decade. While inflation increased by about 30 percent from 1990 to 2000, public school funding has increased only 5 percent, according to the report.

Knowles has already called for more education money, and Wilken has sponsored a bill raising the amount of money per student that goes into the formula.

But some Republicans said they are wary of handing out big increases until new statewide standards give lawmakers a way to measure what districts are doing with the money.

''We can't just blindly shovel money at that problem,'' said Rep. Con Bunde, R-Anchorage, chairman of the House Special Committee on Education. ''Without these standards how will we ever know whether enough is enough?''



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