Legislature takes steps to improve education

Posted: Friday, September 07, 2001

Alaska's schools are once again hives of academic activity as students return from their summer vacations and take up their studies. From pre-schools to universities, Alaska's educational system is in full swing, and it is an opportune time for the rest of us to reflect on the Alaska Legislature's work last session to support education.

At the top of the list is the Legislature's approval of the largest increase in state education funding in many years: We increased funding for K-12 education by more than $34 million and added $38.4 million for the University of Alaska.

To assist schools in dealing with low student performance on the high school competency test, we doubled funding for Learning Opportunity Grants to $12.4 million. These grants go directly to schools to develop standards, buy textbooks or other materials and measure academic progress to help students progress academically and succeed on the competency tests.

At their discretion, schools can also use the grants to design and operate vocational education programs.

This year the Legislature also agreed to pay in full the ever-increasing bill for pupil transportation, the cost of getting students to and from schools, totaling $50.6 million this year. This allows schools to use every dime of the $685 million in K-12 foundation formula funding -- the state's largest single general fund expense -- to teach the children.

As co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee, I am especially proud our committee sponsored SB 174 to increase the basic state education funding formula by $70 per student. This bill, which I personally worked hard to craft and pass into law, provides an additional $14 million to public schools this fall.

This new law also reformed the existing formula to better adjust for the number of schools in a district. It additionally provides property tax relief to residents of communities like Anchorage who pay local taxes to support schools.

Faced with a shortage of teachers in Alaska, the Legislature passed two laws in a win-win solution for short-staffed schools and aspiring

teachers alike.

Senate Bill 86, sponsored by Sen. Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, lets college graduates teach in the subject matter of their bachelor's degree, and lets college graduates in an unrelated discipline teach in an area in which they have five year's work experience.

Under Senate Bill 149, sponsored by Sen. Loren Leman, R-Anchorage, teachers certified in other states can teach in Alaska, and retired teachers can easily return to the classroom.

Experienced teachers and current textbooks alone can't keep students' attention if their schoolrooms are cold, drafty, wet or cramped. This session we heard stories of flooded classrooms, snow blowing through walls and dangerously soft wooden building support beams.

Responding to these hazards, we passed House Bill 234, sponsored by the House Finance Committee, spending $76 million to build or renovate 32 of our public schools. Students in Koyuk, Golovin and Togiak can look forward to brand-new schools, while schools that need new roofs, heating systems or other repairs to make their facilities usable have the funds to do so. House Bill 90 also provided $102 million to reimburse some of the cost to build and repair schools in Anchorage, the Northwest Arctic Borough, Kiana, Unalaska and Juneau.

The Legislature also heeded the calls of students, employees and advocates of the University of Alaska to help the state's top educational institution attract, retain and graduate students.

Acknowledging the improved economic accountability and efficiency of the university administration, the Legislature voted to appropriate an additional $38.4 million for the University of Alaska budget. We also passed a law to transfer 250,000 acres of state land to the university, to build the university's permanent endowment of natural resources.

Finally, all this additional funding was provided while keeping increased state spending below the increase in population and inflation. This was accomplished by the Republican Majorities in both the House and Senate making education funding our top priority.

Whether you are a parent sending your children off to school, a student heading to class or a business person hoping to hire well-educated workers, you can be proud of the efforts your Legislature put into improving Alaska's educational environment this year.

Sen. Dave Donley, R-Anchorage, has served in the Alaska Legislature since 1986. He was elected to the Senate in 1992.

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