Legislators should increase funding for education now

Posted: Friday, January 28, 2005

There's little doubt that the high price of oil will give legislators some breathing room as they craft a spending plan for the state this session.

Nowhere is that breathing room likely to be noticed and appreciated more than when it comes to funding for education. Gov. Frank Murkowski already has proposed raising the per-student allocation from the current $4,576 to $4,869, or about $62 million statewide.

That's encouraging, but it's not enough. The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District is recommending an increase of $5,048 per student. That's the increase lawmakers should support.

Legislators should carefully listen to the reasons behind the district's request. Just meeting the mandated obligations to the Public Employee Retirement System and the Teacher Retirement System will require an additional $114 per student to the current $4,576; another $114 is needed to adjust the state's unjust area cost differential that does not take into account the vastness of this district and the rural nature of many of its schools; add $175 to reduce class size — a district priority; and, finally, put in $69 per student to inflation proof the state's funding formula.

It doesn't take a math teacher to figure out that the $5,048 per student the district is seeking is for basics, to hold its own against soaring costs, to hedge against cutting programs and teachers.

The district doesn't have a lot of wiggle room in its budget: 78 percent of it goes to salaries and benefits; 4 percent to utilities; 9 percent to insurance, building maintenance and custodial services; and 9 percent is discretionary spending on such things as travel, equipment purchases, rentals and repairs, supplies, stipends, career development and other miscellaneous expenses.

The difficulty is everyone wants more money to go directly to education — for such things as lowering class size, offering a variety of quality academic programs, buying teaching tools and maintaining those activities, including music, sports and drama, that keep students engaged in school. When fixed costs keep going up, it's hard to find money to do what everyone thinks should be the priorities.

That's why a recommendation made at this week's public forum in Homer on the school district budget is worth heeding at all levels of government: Let's come up with a plan when we're not operating in crisis mode.

While the high price of oil is a far cry from discovering another Prudhoe Bay, it certainly gives lawmakers and others a chance to re-evaluate the state's budget process and come up with a better plan. If education is truly a priority, let's fund it like it should be funded so Alaska students get the education they deserve. Because districts have to adopt balanced budgets before they know how much money they will receive from the state, now is the time to adopt a measure which would require the Legislature to approve an education budget by April 1 each year.

While the budget news coming out of the school district is more encouraging than in recent years, it's still nothing to celebrate. But the state has been given some breathing room. With it, Alaskans should work hard to make sure students are spared hits during the next budget crisis — which surely is just around the corner.

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