JUNEAU — State education commissioner Mike Hanley said the department, schools and districts will have to work to find efficiencies in light of the state’s budget deficit.
But he said education will have to be protected at some level and expects there to be a conversation as to what that level should be.
Alaska faces a projected multibillion-dollar budget deficit amid a crash in oil prices. Gov. Bill Walker has said he wants to insulate education to the greatest extent possible, but he also has said nothing is off the table as the state cuts costs. He said the state would continue to invest in education but not at the rate it could have when oil prices were much higher.
He has proposed cutting about $50 million in additional aid to schools between fiscal years 2016 and 2017, $32 million of which was tagged for next year and $19 million for 2017, his office said. Lawmakers called for that additional spending as part of an education bill passed in the last session.
Walker also proposed reducing the level of advanced funding for education for 2017 by 10 percent.
In an interview, Hanley said he, like other commissioners, proposed agency cuts. Given education is a major piece of Alaska’s operating budget, he said it’s hard to move the needle much on spending without considering cutting one-time aid or formula spending.
He said the state must be strategic about cuts it makes to education so that it doesn’t suffer setbacks. “If we have created a system that causes a loss of opportunity for students, you just don’t get that back,” he said.
The department will slim down as much as it can and do its part, Hanley said. Walker has asked the departments of education and labor and the university system to take a holistic look at post-secondary education as part of an effort to share resources, find greater efficiencies and do things in a different way.
Walker also asked commissioners to tell him what their departments would look like in four years if their budgets were 25 percent smaller than now.
Hanley said he understands what Walker proposed and appreciates that he wants to protect education. But he said at some point, the governor, lawmakers and the department will have to decide they can’t go lower on school funding.
“I think that that just becomes the collective conversation when we start considering the impacts and every legislator comes with their mind around ‘here’s the impact to my district,’” Hanley said. “I think we get to a point where we say, I’m not comfortable with going lower. But it’s not for me to say what that line is. It’s this wrestling that we’re all going to have to do in the midst of this budget context — what do we do with this?”
It’s important to get a handle on costs and make sure the state is funding education in the best way possible and getting the best return on its investment, Hanley said, though he said the return is hard to measure.
He said he doesn’t think it’s shortsighted for him to say “this is something we have to protect to a level.”
“We have to protect it more than some other areas for the sake of our responsibility to our next generation,” he said.
Some lawmakers have raised concerns with Walker’s proposal. The president of a teachers’ union in the state, NEA-Alaska, called on Walker and lawmakers to keep the $32 million in place for next year “to lessen the impact of future budget cuts” on students.
Senate Minority Leader Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, said the question should not be how much should the state spend on education but what does it take to get the outcomes the state needs, like increased graduation rates and decreased dropout rates.
Rep. Lynn Gattis, R-Wasilla, has proposed repealing a requirement that students take a college or career readiness test to get a high school diploma. The test provision was included in last year’s education bill, along with a provision calling for the department to cover the cost of a test for each high school student who needs to take one. A Gattis aide said Gattis is interested in cuts that don’t specifically affect the classroom.