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Digging out of the hole: $1 billion for K-12 schools begins journey to adequate funding

Voices of the State

Posted: Wednesday, May 02, 2007

The old adage says you don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. Days ago the Alaska Legislature passed Senate Bill 61, putting $1 billion (that’s with a B) of excess revenues into the Public Education Fund. This appropriation is significant for the possibilities it opens up for both forward funding and adequate funding.

The 13,000 members of NEA-Alaska applaud the Legislature’s action on the set-aside. If the state is going to park money for future use, we can think of no better place.

In 2005, the Legislature created the Public Education Fund (PEF) through HB 158. NEA-Alaska supports the measure and believes that setting aside money for the constitutional mandate of public education is always positive. HB 158 was akin to buying a new toolbox. The Senate’s action allows the toolbox to be filled with the needed materials to accomplish the work of adequately funding Alaska’s schools. This breakthrough appropriation to the PEF sets aside enough excess revenue to address forward funding as soon as next year and adequacy (over time).

Forward funding would be a good thing. It would allow school districts to get out of the annual cycle of sending out pink slips to teachers in March -- then rescinding them if the funding from Juneau comes through.

Over the years, NEA-Alaska has worked with lawmakers and governors to improve K-12 funding. In the past three years, state leaders have added more than $250 million to the Base Student Allocation. That sounds like a huge increase for students until you consider the hyper increasing costs of the retirement program and of energy needed to run facilities.

Only about one-fifth of the $250 million went to the districts for improving student achievement. Divide that $50 million by 53 school districts, and you can put those “historic” increases into perspective.

Improvements in student achievement begin with a quality teacher in every classroom, supported by quality education support professionals. With Alaska’s small population base, we will always have to attract 75 percent of our teachers from the Lower 48.

A study by the Institute of Social and Economic Research reached disturbing conclusions about Alaska’s competitiveness:

“Higher living costs, especially in remote areas, have historically made Alaska teachers’ salaries higher than the U.S. average, and salaries here still rank number 11 in the United States. But from 1994 to 2004, teachers’ salaries in Alaska grew less than in any other state -- under 9 percent, compared with 31 percent nationwide. Adjusted for inflation, Alaska teachers’ salaries fell 14 percent during the decade. So on the basis of salary, Alaska has become less competitive nationally in the search for quality teachers.” (Alaska Teacher Supply and Demand, 2005 Update, www.iser.uaa.alaska.edu)

NEA-Alaska has a seven-year plan to achieve adequate funding by 2014. For two decades Alaska schools suffered the ravages of inflation. It will take time and money to dig ourselves out of the hole.

The Public Education Fund could help. It would be a great place for lawmakers to get the increases our schools will need over the next several years -- to help us make progress back toward adequate funding.

Bill Bjork is president of NEA-Alaska, which represents more than 13,000 teachers and education support professionals throughout Alaska. a



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