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Alaska House unveils education package stacked with Republican priorities

JUNEAU — House Republicans on Wednesday unveiled a package of education-related legislation that they framed as their response to growing calls to increase education funding. Educators say the proposal falls short of what is needed to account for inflation.

The proposal is estimated to cost around $190 million per year and includes $77 million for the state’s per-school funding formula — but that is far less than the more than $350 million annually that educators say is needed to make up for inflation since 2017, when the formula was last significantly changed.

The bipartisan Senate Majority proposed last year increasing education funding by $175 million per year. House members indicated in several votes that they supported that funding amount, but the bill was blocked from reaching a final vote on the chamber floor, and leaders of the House majority have said they support a smaller spending package for schools.

The Republican-dominated House majority’s package brings together legislation from several separate proposals, including a rough estimate of $20 million for boosting internet speeds in schools; $58 million in teacher bonus payments; $23 million for home-schooled students; and a provision meant to increase the number of charter schools in Alaska.

The package was introduced in the House Rules Committee — one that does not typically deal with education-related policy — as an add-on to a bill that originally included provisions to collect more funding to increase school districts’ internet speeds. That bill passed the Senate last year and advanced through several House committee hearings, only to be amended on the final day of last year’s session to include $175 million in additional annual spending on education. It then stalled hours before the end-of-session deadline.

House Rules Committee Chair Craig Johnson, an Anchorage Republican, said the majority’s plan was to advance the 17-page proposal through the House and send it to the Senate, where it could be negotiated through what’s called a conference committee. Such a committee brings together a small group of lawmakers who can hold closed-door meetings to iron out disagreements between the chambers before bringing a compromise to a vote in both chambers.

Sen. Löki Tobin, an Anchorage Democrat who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said the conference committee would circumvent the process that is meant to allow for adequate input from experts and the public on policy proposals.

“The whole reason we have the education policy committees is to produce good public policy,” she said.

House minority members already signaled they opposed the House majority’s package. In a Rules Committee vote on Wednesday, the committee adopted the new version of the bill along caucus lines, with the two minority members — Rep. Calvin Schrage, I-Anchorage, and Rep. Zack Fields, D-Anchorage — voting against the proposal.

In an effort to quickly advance the legislation, the House Rules Committee scheduled a hearing Saturday morning to take public testimony. The topic of education was set to continue to dominate the first week of the legislative session, with three days remaining before the Saturday deadline for lawmakers to consider overturning Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s veto of $87 million in education funding, and an educator rally scheduled Thursday on the Capitol steps.

“Let the games begin,” Johnson said at the conclusion of the 30-minute Rules Committee hearing on Wednesday.

‘Disparate treatment’

All of the individual proposals in the House Republicans’ package stem from legislation that was introduced in several different bills last year.

The teacher bonus payments were introduced by Gov. Mike Dunleavy, who said they would help recruit teachers to the state. But the bonuses, which are proposed to range from $5,000 for teachers in urban schools to $15,000 for teachers in rural schools, could violate the state constitution by treating teachers unequally based on their geographic location, according to the nonpartisan legislative legal agency.

A memo from the agency states that the “disparate treatment” of teachers under the proposal could “raise an equal protection challenge” under the state constitution.

The proposal could also constitute an unfair labor practice by hampering collective bargaining agreements, according to the agency. “If the state unilaterally imposes a payment incentive on a bargaining unit for certain employees that is higher than the payment incentive the state provides to other employees, the disparate treatment may” constitute an unfair labor practice, the memo states.

The $23 million funding boost for the state’s roughly 20,000 correspondence program students was proposed last year by Rep. Justin Ruffridge, a Soldotna Republican who co-chairs the House Education Committee. The provision would make homeschooled students eligible for “a special needs factor,” which gives extra funding for advanced placement classes and vocational-technical education.

The charter school provision would allow the state board of education — made up of the governor’s appointees — to approve new charter programs. Johnson and House Speaker Cathy Tilton said the provision related to charter schools was proposed by Dunleavy, but its wording is almost identical to one included in a bill proposed last year by Rep. Ben Carpenter, R-Nikiski.

Currently, charter schools can only be approved by the elected school boards in the districts where the schools are proposed.

Since Alaska ranked at the top of a new state-by-state charter school assessment last year, Dunleavy’s administration has signaled he views more charter schools as part of the solution to Alaska’s lagging reading and math assessments. But the proposal would dramatically change the approval process for charter schools in the state — giving control to a statewide board appointed by the governor.

Fields said Wednesday that the charter school provision could lead to violations of the state constitution, which prohibits the use of public funds for religious schools.

“As constructed, the charter language is effectively a voucher program in which we would have so-called charter schools with nearly no public oversight using public funds for potentially religious material,” said Fields.

After the committee hearing finished, Lon Garrison, executive director of the Alaska Association of School Boards, expressed concern in an interview that the proposed change to state authorization of charter schools would take power away from local school boards. He said the current system works well.

”It’s a solution looking for a problem, and we don’t have that problem,” he said.

Another set of provisions in the package would establish a deaf and hard-of-hearing children’s bill of rights and create a centralized state program for deaf students. That was taken from a bill introduced last year by Rep. Jamie Allard, an Eagle River Republican who co-chairs the House Education Committee.

Sean Maguire reported from Juneau and Iris Samuels reported from Anchorage.

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