Task force looks into costs of education

Chenault’s House resolution takes shape as committee

Posted: Sunday, August 28, 2005

A new government task force established to review the cost of educating Alaska students and make recommendations for revamping the way state funding is distributed among rural and urban districts is scheduled to hold its first meeting Monday in Anchorage.

The Task Force on School District Cost Factors and the Foundation Formula, created by House Resolution 10, will evaluate proposals pertaining to school district cost differentials. But the seven-member group has its work cut out for it, considering the geographical and political divisions that have thus far thwarted other attempts to ensure equality of education and opportunity.

The task force includes the resolution’s prime sponsor, Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, co-chair of the House Finance Committee, as well as representatives Mark Neuman, R-Mat-Su, Peggy Wilson, R-Wrangell, and Reggie Joule, D-Kotzebue. Also on the task force are Sens. Gary Wil-ken, R-Fair-banks, Lyda Green, R-Wasilla, and Con Bunde, R-Anchorage.

“We’re going to bang away at this and see what happens,” Chenault said Thursday. “I want to look at what the bottom-line issues are and see what we can agree to, and what we can agree to implement.”

The task force is to deliver a written report with recommendations to the House and Senate by Jan. 20.

The Alaska School District Cost Study, January 2003, conducted by the Washington, D.C.-based American Institutes for Research produced a proposed geographic cost of education index. That was subsequently reviewed by the Institute of Social and Economic Research of the University of Alaska, which found it wanting not so much in its theoretical methodology, but in certain assumptions about conditions in Alaska.

Specifically, ISER found the AIR study did not adequately address teacher turnover or teacher compensation, and inaccurately estimated such things as energy, material and travel costs. ISER also was asked to re-estimate the cost index with improved and updated data.

HR 10 noted that studies of school district cost factors “should be valid, defensible and decisive,” and further that ISER reviews in 2003 and 2004 recommended the school district cost factors under state law be increased “to more accurately reflect cost differentials in rural school districts.”

Chenault said that for a variety of reasons, legislators failed to agree on what should be done to fix the problems. Among the stumbling blocks was how to ensure the “have” districts wouldn’t lose money in order to give the “have-nots” a fairer share of a limited pool of funds. Thus, it became and remains as much a fiscal as political conundrum.

The resolution also noted that inflation rates, building, energy and other costs are higher in rural school districts than in urban school districts.

Kenai Peninsula Borough School District officials have argued for years that its schools have been inadequately funded under the current foundation formula primarily because it is treated as more urban than rural. The formula does not accurately reflect that many district schools serve students in remote, clearly rural communities — such as Tyonek, Hope, Moose Pass, Cooper Landing, Nikolaevsk, Voznesenka, Razdolna, Kachemak Selo, Seldovia, Port Graham and Nanwalek.

Joule, the only Democrat on the task force, said the Kenai Peninsula district was “an anomaly” in the formula.

“It doesn’t get treated well,” he said. “But in the rest of rural Alaska, until the PERS/TERS (state public employee and teacher retirement systems) became an issue, people weren’t willing to listen to what was going on in the Bush.”

State lawmakers have upped funding to schools in the past two years, thanks largely to the availability of increased oil revenue caused by rising world prices. However, much of the increases have been eaten up by contract obligations, leaving less for actually enhancing the education package delivered to the state’s children. That problem has been exacerbated by rapidly rising fuel costs, which have literally taken money out of the classroom, Joule said.

“We are putting a lot of money in, and the costs keep rising,” he said.

Recognizing that legislative inertia is delaying efforts at fixing the foundation formula, Chenault said perhaps this small but bipartisan, rural-urban, House-Senate mixture of opinion can arrive at some palatable solution to take to the Legislature next session. He said he is approaching the work of the task force “with an open mind.”

However, the fear that some solutions might involve “stealing from Peter to pay Paul” may drive lawmakers to simply create a larger pool from which to draw resources. That is, ensure the baseline district, in this case Anchorage, gets a little more per student, while granting under-funded districts a greater increase in order to approach fairness. Rising oil revenues might make that easier.

“I don’t see us taking money from one district and putting it somewhere else,” Chenault said. “If there ever was a time to make districts whole, now is the time, with the price of oil today. We need to look at what’s right for schools.”

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