An education funding bill is expected to be introduced this week

    From left to right: Senator Jesse Kiehl, Senator Gary Stevens, Madame Chair/Senator Löki Tobin, and Senator Jesse Bjorkman listen to education advocates Friday. (Photo credit to Jasz Garrett/KINY)

    Juneau, Alaska (KINY) - This past week, the Senate Education Committee began the work of identifying the funding challenges facing Alaska’s public schools.

    Senator Löki Tobin was the Madame Chair for an education meeting Friday.

    She expects the legislature to introduce a bill addressing education funding in Alaska this upcoming week, as early as Wednesday.

    Senator Tobin acknowledged it was challenging to narrow this week's significant presentations into one highlight. However, she did comment on a specific budget cut that was especially hard for her to hear.

    "For me, hearing from Superintendent Walker was really illuminative. I myself had my start in Nome, as I've shared with many folks, and having the opportunity to travel for Junior Varsity sports and see different communities, and have that level of competition is what made me strive for academic excellence. To hear that they've cut their JV non-high school and JV travel for sporting events because of budget shortfalls is a difficult pill to swallow. I know many of our students in rural Alaska, they love competition. They love basketball, they love wrestling, and to know that is not a component of their educational experience is hard to hear."

    Senator Tobin addressed a key piece of information presented.

    "Many folks talk about how Alaska spends an extraordinary amount on education. When you actually hold and adjust for inflation and adjust for the national average, including the high cost of health care, the high cost of housing, and the high costs of energy, we're actually 7% below the national average. That number needs to really sink into folks and really elevate that we can put more in. We should put more in and we are responsible to put more in."

    Other information of note is that maintenance costs for schools, such as repairs to roofs and keeping the heat on, are increasingly challenging as the same funds that were available over the pandemic have now stopped.

    The cost of living affects school operations in gathering food, fuel, and supplies.

    Superintendent Terri Walker of Northwest Arctic Borough School District shared a quote from a student in Kotzebue.

    "When a new teacher arrives, it takes months for them to get to know us. Then they leave and we start all over. We want our teachers to stay."

    Senator Gary Stevens asked Superintendent Walker what they are doing in rural communities to lead their own students into becoming teachers.

    Superintendent Walker said that they do have a few students graduating this year with an interest in teaching, and they are working "to grow their own."

    An idea was proposed through social media for one local school board to represent all of Alaska. Senator Tobin explained her thoughts.

    "I'd like to hear from our stakeholders, I think their words are much stronger and more rooted in lived experience than my own. The key component is that Alaska has a strong adherence to local control to the idea that we should have our education system rooted in place-based education. That means with a state with the size and breadth of Alaska, it would be untenable to try to create a one size fits all school board that is looking at the breadth of folks from Juneau all the way to Nome, from Kodiak all the way to Fairbanks. You wouldn't have that locally influenced education, that strong integration of the community of parents in your educational offerings. It would all come from a tap down. I think we can all agree that we here in Alaska don't really appreciate tap-down approaches."

    Another presenter at the Friday education meeting was Superintendent Clayton Holland of the Kenai Penisula Borough School District.

    Superintendent Clayton said the further out a rural school is, the more the cost is. He said administrative costs, instructional costs, transportation, energy, and inflation all play a factor.

    Above: Senator Jesse Bjorkman once taught a hunting and fundamental life skill class in Nikiski featured in the New York Times. He recognized the importance of hands-on activities for students.

    Superintendent Clayton stated that they cut 49 staff members (half of their staff) to make ends meet this school year, and another year out it will be 49 more. He said this causes tension and uncertainty in the school district and a lack of stability.

    It's not just the Kenai Penisula Borough School District and the Northwest Arctic Borough School District that are struggling. Schools in Southeast, like Juneau, Sitka and Ketchikan are suffering from a lack of funds too, as is the Anchorage School District, the largest district in the state.

    "Alaska is competing with the lower 48, and the current funding system is losing teachers," Dayna Jean DeFeo, the Director of the Center for Alaska Education Policy Research said. "Many of Alaska's costs are beyond education policy, like fuel and healthcare. To achieve education outcomes, Alaska spending needs need to be competitive with working conditions, salaries, and benefits."

    DeFeo added that high per-pupil teacher salaries are not driving the cost. On average, Alaska teachers' salaries are about 15% below where they should be.

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