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4/19/2014
Education bill rewrite unveiled

By BECKY BOHRER

Associated Press

JUNEAU — The Senate Finance Committee proposed an overhaul to a broad-ranging education bill Friday, choosing to provide additional money to districts outside the per-pupil funding formula. Critics called the approach disappointing.

The draft rewrite came in the waning days of the legislative session, scheduled to end Sunday. As part of the package, senators proposed $100 million in education funding outside the base student allocation for each of the next three years. That figure incorporates $25 million that had been in the budget for next year, which would essentially make the additional funding for next year $75 million.

Committee co-chair Sen. Kevin Meyer said during a hearing Friday that funding for other initiatives within the bill would come from the $100 million total, which he said could leave perhaps about $75 million to be split among districts. But Meyer later told a reporter that the issue of whether the money for the other initiatives would be taken from the funds distributed to schools had not been decided.

The draft, which is subject to additional changes, borrowed from a number of other bills and ideas that have been floating around the Capitol, including Gov. Sean Parnell’s original bill. The draft includes provisions to allow students to test out of certain courses they have mastered, such as math, science and world languages, and to repeal the high school exit exam, replacing it with a college- or career-readiness test. It adds support for charter schools, residential schools and correspondence study programs. It calls for funding to improve Internet service for schools with slower download speeds.

It retains provisions added in the House about teacher tenure and a call for a proposed salary and benefit schedule for districts — a provision that Education Commissioner Mike Hanley, when pressed by committee members from rural communities, said he wasn’t wedded to.

Meyer, R-Anchorage, said the bill will provide more choices in education and give districts incentives to do things differently. The goal also is to build programs that work, he said.

The legislation is not a “status quo” education bill, Meyer said.

The rewrite also calls for a study of how the state pays for education. Meyer said there was reluctance to put more money the base student allocation, which he says is a formula that some lawmakers believe is broken and will be re-examined. The plan calls for $100 million for three years, with the expectation it will take time to delve into studying the funding issue, Meyer said.

His co-chair, Sen. Pete Kelly, acknowledged that lawmakers can’t bind future legislatures, but he said the experience has been that when money is put in for education, it doesn’t get taken out.

Becca Bernard, a parent from Anchorage with the group Great Alaska Schools who has become a familiar face in the Capitol halls, said the Senate’s funding approach was very disappointing.

Bernard said it didn’t provide a reliable source of funding, the way money in the base student allocation would be reliable. She questioned just how much would be available for the classroom and whether it would be enough for districts to stave off cuts.

Senate Minority Leader Hollis French, D-Anchorage, said he’d give the overall bill the grade of a “C,” calling it “fairly tepid.”

Whatever version of the bill that passes the Senate would have to be agreed to by the House or the matter would be sent to a conference committee.

The House bill took a different approach on funding by putting additional money into the base student allocation — about $300 per student over three years — and providing $30 million in one-time funding for districts. There had been efforts on that side to make funding-formula adjustments, but those faltered.