School funding change clears first hurdle

Posted: Thursday, January 31, 2002

JUNEAU (AP) -- A House panel Wednesday approved a bill to suspend a part of the state's school funding formula that critics have said penalizes some rural schools.

The one-year change would direct about $1 million more in state money to 29 mostly rural schools.

The bill would suspend the so-called ''eroding floor'' provision, which was part of a 1998 rewrite of the school funding formula. That provision causes some districts to receive less money for their new students than other districts do.

Randy Ruaro, an aide to the bill's sponsor, Rep. Bill Williams, R-Ketchikan, said the bill would suspend the provision for just one year until a new study of cost differences between districts can be finished.

''The additional funds that these districts would receive would help them with issues such as hiring and retaining quality teachers,'' Ruaro told the House Education Committee.

Opponents of the measure, however, said the provision was put in law to correct past inequities, and removing it -- even for a year -- is a step backward.

''Why would you want to go back to a poorer allocation of funds?'' asked Rep. Joe Green, R-Anchorage.

The 1998 rewrite of the school funding formula resulted in some districts receiving proportionately more overall state school funding, while others were in line to receive less.

To prevent districts on the losing end from suffering a big hit in one year, the law provided them with supplemental funding. But it called for a gradual erosion in that help by subtracting 40 percent of any extra money the districts receive for new students from their supplemental funding.

Districts that fall into that category have been primarily rural and some have been primarily Native, which has resulted in criticism that Native students are treated unequally -- as though they are worth 40 percent less than white urban students.

But Sen. Gary Wilken, R-Fairbanks, who pushed the 1998 rewrite of the formula, rejects that characterization.

''The 60-40 split is political spin,'' Wilken told the committee.

Wilken contends that those districts were receiving more than their share of state funds before the 1998 change, and the new law simply righted that inequity in a gradual fashion.

Advocates of House Bill 312, however, say the 1998 law contained flaws.

Eddy Jeans, school finance manager for the Department of Education and Early Development, said the 1998 law's calculation of differences in district costs was based on how much a district was actually spending, not how much it needed to spend.

Bruce Johnson of the Association of Alaska School Boards said that method penalized poor districts that could not afford to spend what they needed.

The Legislature last year authorized money for a new study of district cost differences, which is scheduled to be completed in November.

The Education Committee voted 5-2 to send the bill on to its next committee, House Finance, where Williams is co-chairman.

House Speaker Brian Porter, R-Anchorage; Peggy Wilson, R-Wrangell; Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak; Gretchen Guess, D-Anchorage and Reggie Joule, D-Kotzebue voted yes. Anchorage Republican Reps. Con Bunde and Joe Green voted no.

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