Senate taps education surplus for school quality grants

Posted: Friday, March 31, 2000

JUNEAU (AP) -- The Senate Finance Committee approved nearly $5.8 million Thursday for one-time grants to improve student performance on the state's new high school exit exam.

Gov. Tony Knowles had proposed a permanent increase in the state's Quality Schools program. He wanted to boost the program's annual grants from $16 per student to $52 a student, a total of about $7.6 million a year, to help schools prepare for the new standards and testing.

The Republican-dominated committee chose instead to use a surplus from the state's financial support for basic education to pay one year of ''learning opportunity grants.''

This year's high school sophomores will have to pass the state's new exit exam to graduate in 2002. The exam is the first phase of school standards and testing.

Under the committee's plan, each district would be eligible for a grant of about $43 per student. The money could only be used for extra instructional programs designed to improve student performance on the exit exam.

''We want to be ready for that test,'' Sen. Gary Wilken, R-Fairbanks, said of the grant. ''It is targeted to the classroom.''

The amendment to the operating budget for the fiscal year was approved 7-2. The committee finished amending the budget Thursday evening and was expected to pass the bill on Friday.

The Knowles administration did not protest the change.

''It's not quite as much as we asked for and its just for one year, but this substantially fulfills the governor's objective,'' said Bob King, a spokesman for Democrat Knowles. ''We're pleased that they have recognized it initially and we'll be seeking to continue this in the future.''

By using part of the education surplus from the current fiscal year to pay the grants in the year that begins July 1, the committee was able to increase education spending without adding to the state's general fund budget.

The Legislature's Republican majority is trying to reduce general fund spending by $30 million as a response to the gap between state spending and general revenue, which comes mostly from oil. The gap is expected to exceed $700 million in the coming fiscal year.

The schools grants would use up the remainder of the $14.5 million surplus, said Karen Rehfeld, administration services director for the Department of Education and Early Development.

The committee earmarked $6.5 million of the money for the University of Alaska late Wednesday night. The remaining $2.1 million was spent in a supplemental budget to pay student transportation costs for the current fiscal year that weren't covered in this year's budget.

A drop in enrollment, plus an increase in property values, brought about a surplus in basic educational support, calculated with a formula written into state law.

Knowles had proposed using the surplus to cover supplemental budget spending for the current fiscal year.

The House version of the operating budget, passed earlier this month, does not include the quality schools money because the bill to increase the grants permanently is still pending.

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