Tuesday afternoon in Wasilla, Gov. Sean Parnell signed House Bill 278, the Education Opportunity Act, into law. The omnibus school bill passed the Legislature in the days after the scheduled end of session this year, born of a down-the-middle compromise between those who wanted more funds put into the Base Student Allocation formula that determines the per-pupil dollar amount districts receive and those who wanted the money inserted as a one-time boost.
Those pushing for more formula funding pointed to the fact that the BSA hadn’t received a bump since the 2011 fiscal year, leaving districts squeezed by increasing costs for things like heating fuel. Although the Legislature, as guided by Gov. Parnell’s budget, provided one-time funding outside the formula, each year district representatives trekked to Juneau to make their case, knowing full well that without a sizable one-time shot in the arm, they would be faced with massive budget and staff cuts that would necessitate their worst-case scenario — big increases in the student-to-teacher ratio. Those wanting an increase to the formula got half of what they wanted — a $150 million boost that goes part of the way toward addressing increased fixed costs and inflation.
Those who wanted the BSA to remain the same for the fifth straight year argued a case from the perspective of raw numbers: Formula funding is permanent, so money that is added has impacts for every year afterward. Many of those arguing against increased formula funding have other concerns about the state’s education system, from its focus on public schools instead of charter alternatives to the growth of administration instead of funding flowing more directly into the classroom. It’s understandable that legislators have qualms about giving increased funds to a system that’s structured in a way they don’t favor. But the flip side is that withholding education money, especially in the absence of workable alternatives, guarantees that classroom outcomes will suffer.
The notion of obtaining increased control of the education budget through one-time funding shots is problematic for a few reasons. For one, it guarantees that each year will see a “Groundhog Day” scenario in which district officials and area legislators will waste time in a too-brief session by rehashing the same arguments for more state dollars, each year making piecemeal contributions via targeted increases as the formula becomes less and less relevant to the goal of providing full funding for schools. And if the goal is to ensure more money makes it to the classroom, restricting funds to a specific purpose can be counterproductive. For instance, a recent targeted allocation of one-time security money meant schools could do things like install more closed-circuit cameras (requiring more of district information technology staff) or hire security guards (increasing staff costs in positions outside the classroom).
Overall, the compromise approach might have been the best realistic result one could expect out of Juneau this year. Perspectives on the best direction for the state to take toward education funding are too varied for consensus on a comprehensive plan, especially given a 90-day session that’s too short to deal with complex issues like oil taxes and education. One display of the vast philosophical differences legislators have on education came this year with Sen. John Coghill’s failed measure to amend the Alaska Constitution to allow state funding of religious schools. The measure’s passage would have divided the focus of districts already grappling with new assessment systems for schools and teachers, to say nothing of concerns about violating the separation of church and state.
Legislators did make at least some progress this year, recognizing that school outcomes won’t improve simply by maintaining the status quo. But it’s hard to cheer a result that ensures everyone will be right back in almost the same position in January 2015. So as for that grade? Let’s call it an incomplete.
— Fairbanks Daily News-Miner,