Alaskans must work together to balance available resources, needs

Sorting out school funding

Posted: Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Much debate about education funding has been in the news. While some have used this debate to criticize others' commitment to education, I don't find that to be a useful way of meeting our state's needs. I'd like to bring perspective to this issue.

The governor and Legislature increased the foundation formula by $159 for every student this year. Costing $32 million, it was the biggest increase in a long time and does show commitment to education.

Some, however, dismiss this increase, claiming only $2 million was new money and the rest came from moving Learning Opportunity Grants into the foundation formula. However, while the Legislature has increased these grants from $3.3 million in 1997 to $23.4 million in 2003, it was never guaranteed money. I consider every penny of the $32 million an increase because districts now have more guaranteed money, local governments may increase local funding, and local needs can be met with more flexibility.

Others contend the governor and legislative majority cut education funding. While it's true that three programs were cut and student transportation was changed, here's the full story:

A $2 to $3 increase in fees for beading and swim classes will offset the cut to Community Schools. Given the state's fiscal gap, that was a reasonable policy choice.

Student transportation costs have skyrocketed for a decade without any incentive for efficiency. We changed this program to a grant with level funding, instead of just reimbursing districts. Districts are now finding efficiencies.

State tuition originally compensated districts for educating "wards of the state," but districts receive foundation formula funding or Youth in

Detention Grants for these students. Eliminat-ing state tuition eliminated paying districts twice for the same children.

Most children start kindergarten at age 5. However, a loophole in the law allowed districts to provide kindergarten programs for 3- and 4-year-olds. We closed this loophole because failing to do so could have cost $60 million. Pre-kindergarten education is important, but Head Start is the appropriate program to provide it, not the K-12 foundation formula.

Some complain the state's share of education funding has fallen from 70 percent to 61 percent since 1983, implying a drop in state support for education.

Despite steady increases in state funding, the "state's share" looks smaller because local and federal funding have gone up! In 1987, local contributions to schools were required for the first time. Alaska also began including tens of millions in federal Impact Aid (paid to offset the loss of taxes on federal land) in the foundation formula and saw big increases in other federal education funding.

Others advocate inflation-proofing education. Adding 3.5 percent last year and 4 percent again this year sounds like a modest suggestion until you realize that would have cost $29 million last year and a further $33 million this year! Given the state's deficit and lack of consensus among Alaskans on how to fix it, where would we get that money from needy Alaskans, roads and-or public safety?

State education funding is so complex, incorporating many separate programs and fund sources, you could count the people who can fully explain its details on one hand. But the bottom line is that we authorized an increase in state education funding by more than $10 million last session. We'll spend about $828 million, or $4.4 million per day, to educate our children. Anchorage School District alone is projected to receive over $261 million an increase of $8 million this year.

Republicans have supported responsible increases for education and will again. But the state also supports public safety, the elderly, the

disabled and other important responsibilities. A "he said, she said" education funding debate is useful only if it reminds us all that we must agree on a fiscal plan to carry this state forward.

All Alaskans care deeply about education, and I urge those who care about our state not to

politicize our schools or use education to demonize others for political gain. We must all work together to balance our available resources to meet every Alaskan's needs.

Sen. Con Bunde, R-Anchorage, represents District P in the state Senate. He was first elected to the House in 1992 and the Senate in 2002.

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