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Democrats blast 'stunningly underwhelming' Alaska education report

Pat Forgey
Alex DeMarban photo

JUNEAU -- Hopes of help for local schools are fading with a report this week intended to guide Alaska education spending decisions, but that report is coming in for criticism itself.

Expected to help determine school-funding levels, the Republican-led report instead simply said Alaska was spending too much. And while it suggested some new education spending, the report’s authors assert that current spending is too high and thus "unsustainable."

Democratic leaders were excluded from the drafting of the report. House Democratic Leader Rep. Beth Kerttula of Juneau called its conclusions "stunningly underwhelming."

The House Sustainable Education Task Force was created in the waning days of last year's legislative session, following battles over education funding levels. It has a budget of $250,000, but Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, one of its co-chairs, said only a small portion of that has been spent.

For several years, local school districts have sought an increase in the base-student allocation, the per-student amount that they receive from the state. Instead, legislative leaders and Gov. Sean Parnell have chosen where extra money should be spent, providing money for pupil transportation, security, energy and other costs in various years. Disputes remain.

'We can't give up on education'

The state House of Representatives nearly unanimously created the task force to try to reach some consensus on how much Alaska should spend on education. Instead, the report said total spending should be cut – while also recommending some areas where education could be strengthened with new spending.

For the NEA-Alaska, the state's largest teacher's union, that meant that the effort was failure.

“Besides the fact that the final report failed to address the issues for which it was tasked, the findings seem disconnected from the reality public education is facing across the state,” said Ron Fuhrer, the group's president.

Recommendations that education funding be cut or that costs be shifted to local communities were not responsive to the task force's mission, he said. Kerttula agreed.

“We can't give up on education,” she said. “If we do, we are all in big trouble. But this isn't an appropriate report, it just is not,” she said.

Recommendations such as expanding choice in education with more charter, boarding or home school options don’t answer the questions the task force was asked to address, she said.

"It shows a lack of understanding of the fundamental importance of education in our society, and I'm sad to see it," Kerttula said. "That's pretty harsh, but this is really not right."

No statewide direction for education?

Joining Wilson as another co-chair was Rep. Lynn Gattis, R-Wasilla. Also serving on the committee was Rep. Charisse Millett. The chairs selected the five citizen members after screening their views on education funding. Wilson defended the work of the group, which she noted would keep meeting for another year.

"What we've done so far, we have a lot of information that isn't out there yet that we have been formulating within our offices," she said.

The work of the task force began with information gathering, which is necessary before adopting final recommendations, she said. "We wanted to see first what were the biggest concerns from schools, communities and parents so we can better address what direction we need to go," she said.

The biggest issue, she said, was that Alaska had no statewide direction to what it wanted out of its education system. Without that, there's no way to tell what the appropriate level of education spending is, she said.

"We can look at all the financials we want to, but the bottom line is we don't have a statewide education plan," Wilson said.

That's needed to provide direction to the Legislature, she said. "We need to make sure the directions we're making when it comes to funding are getting us from  point A to point B," Wilson said.

The sole vote against creation of the task force came from Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage and a former teacher. He said that he feels that if the vote were taken today there would be other "no" votes.

"The commission had all these lofty goals, specific things that it was going to do, and it apparently didn't do those things," he said.

Alaska can't continue to cut education by holding spending flat while costs grow, Josephson said.

Contact Pat Forgey at pat(at)alaskadispatch.com