Op/Ed: A Plea for Education Equity

As the 24 th Alaska Legislature enters it’s final six weeks of session, there remains much work to do on behalf of Alaska’s future in addition to securing an Alaskan gas pipeline and determining an equitable petroleum production tax. Foremost amongst this unfinished business is the full development of our most precious value-added natural resource, Alaska’s school children. With much work left to do, and little time to do it, we need your support in making the case for adequate and equitable school funding in Alaska. The two issues central to school funding in Alaska are best described as adequacy, meaning enough educational dollars to meet the operational needs of Alaska’s schools, and equity, meaning the fair distribution of those educational dollars relative to the expense of doing business in a particular geographic region of the State. In recent years, Alaska’s schools have benefited from increases to the adequacy portion of the foundation formula (more specifically referred to as the Base Student Allocation), and this year, most schools in Alaska are counting on the Governor’s proposal of an $90.2 Million increase. However, despite these raises, the compounded effect of a decade of flat funding, inflation, yearly employer rate increases to the Teacher Retirement System and other benefits, and increased energy costs have eroded many of the gains that have been made over these last few years. Due to these increases, of the statewide $90.2 million proposed by the Governor this year, only an estimated $20 million will make it’s way to the classroom in instructional dollars. While the case remains for adequate school funding in both urban and rural Alaska, perhaps no region has been more negatively impacted by the effects of funding inequities than rural Southeast Alaska. The legislation that enacted the current education funding formula in 1998, SB 36, established a "District Cost Factor" This provision is a mechanism by which communities burdened with higher operational costs have been assigned a "multiplier’ to be factored with the Base Student Allocation in determining the adjusted dollars required for the purchase of services the equivalent of those offered in lower cost areas of the state, i.e in the Anchorage Bowl. However, this same bill proclaimed that it is no more expensive to "do business" in rural Southeast Alaska than it is in Anchorage, and the communities of Sitka, Ketchikan, Petersburg and Wrangell have seen the multiplier calculated at the urban base of 1.000 ever since. We all know from personal experience that such an assumption is false. As a district, we know that operational costs large and small are more expensive in Sitka than in Anchorage. From the outset it was clear that equity was not being served in many districts, yet the bill did call for periodic review and readjustment of the cost factor. Despite several legislatively funded studies to determine how these inequities should be addressed, the legislature until now has declined to take up the matter.

The most recent study was commissioned by the legislature and carried out by the University of Alaska’s Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER). This study has determined that the multiplier for Sitka should be set at 1.195, not the current 1.000 base. If fully implemented, as written in currently proposed legislation (SB 116), this would mean an additional $1.7 million in State dollars available to operate Sitka’s schools. HB 173 addresses this inequity in different terms, calling for an incremental implementation of the ISER study to enact a multiplier for Sitka of 1.049 in 2006, and 1.098 in 2007. However HB 173 has seen no committee action since April 2005 and SB 116 has seen none since February 2005. Both are set to expire on May 12 when the legislature goes out of session. Until this year there seemed little chance of getting anywhere on the equity issue as the House and Senate Republican majorities, being mostly from urban Alaska, didn’t see it as adversely effecting their districts. The calculus has changed this year with mid-sized and some larger school districts in four senate, and thus eight house districts, all represented by majority party members adversely affected by these unrealistic multipliers. Given that Democratic Minority Leadership, with eight seats in the Senate and fourteen in the House, has told us that they fully support the implementation of the ISER study, and that four of twelve majority Senators and eight of twenty six majority Representatives could greatly benefit from some progress in this area during an election year, there seems to be reason for optimism. However none of this will get off the ground unless the leadership in at least one of the legislative bodies, House or Senate, can be convinced to schedule committee hearings on these equity bills in the next committee of reference. So what do we need to do? We need letters and e-mails to the four affected majority Senators-- Bert Stedman of Sitka, Gary Stevens of Kodiak, Thomas Wagoner of Kenai and Gene Therriault of North Pole plus the majority Representatives from those areas-John Coghill, John Harris, Jim Elkins, Peggy Wilson, Kurt Olson, Mike Chenault, Paul Seaton and Gabrielle LaDoux. Additionally interested should be William Thomas from Haines and Bruce Weyhrauch from Juneau, both Republican Representatives. Additionally e-mails and letters should go to members of the House Finance Committee, the next committee of reference for HB 173. The members of House Finance are Representatives Mike Chenault, Kevin Meyer, Bill Stoltze, Richard Foster, Mike Hawker, Jim Holm, Michael Kelly, Bruce Weyhrauch, Beth Kerttula, Reggie Joule,and Carl Moses. Similar letters and e-mails may be sent to Senate Finance members regarding SB 116. They are Senators Gary Wilken, Lyda Green, Con Bunde, Fred Dyson, Bert Stedman, Lyman Hoffman and Donald Olson. All letter mail (which is more effective in general than e-mail) should be addressed to Senator or Representative First & Last Name // State Capitol // Juneau, Alaska 998011182. E-mail should be in the form of : Senator_First Name_Last Name@legis.state.ak.us or Representative_First Name_Last Name@legis.state.ak.us. The address is case sensitive so Senator and Representative and First & Last Name need to be capitalized.

It is our earnest desire to enable the best possible education for our kids, and we are confident that the community of Sitka supports our schools and those who work hard to deliver quality education to our students. Your voice is important, and we hope that you will do all you can to encourage our State leadership to do all they can to equitably fund Alaska’s schools. Please feel free to contact us with any questions you may have, and thank you for your ongoing support. Scott McAdams, President, Sitka School Board Tom Conley, Vice President, Sitka School Board

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