A.J. Wilson, 17, DeAndre Pittman, 16, and Elora Johnson, 16, eat lunch March 31, 2022, in the Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé cafeteria. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)

Alaska lawmakers choose lower funding proposals for school lunches, reading reforms

Compromise budget rejects making reduced-price lunches free to students from low-income families.

Lawmakers charged with reconciling the House and Senate versions of the state’s operating budget chose to allocate fewer dollars to reading reforms and lunches for students from low-income families. It will take majority votes of the full House and Senate to approve their choices.

The House’s operating budget included nearly $9 million to support the Alaska Reads Act, a 2022 law that directs the state to offer extra support for lower-performing readers from kindergarten to third grade. The goal is to have all Alaska students reading at grade level by the end of third grade. But on Thursday, a committee working on a compromise budget adopted the Senate’s figure instead, which earmarks just over $5 million to boost the initiative.

Lawmakers have heard testimony from teachers and principals that say they appreciate the program’s aims, but find the extra requirements to be a significant demand on resources. For example, a Petersburg principal told lawmakers that she spends her evenings working on the individualized student reading plans required by the law to spare her teachers the additional burden. In the Aurora Borealis Charter School in Fairbanks, some of the required reading interventions take place in the laundry room because classroom space is limited.

The conference committee also chose not to make reduced-price lunches free to students from families with low incomes, at an estimated cost just under half a million dollars. The money was set to come from the Department of Corrections budget.

“I don’t understand why we continue to invest in our prisons at a higher rate than we invest in our kids,” Rep. Jennie Armstrong, D-Anchorage, said on Friday.

Armstrong wanted to see the state go even further and provide universal free lunch and breakfast for students, but the change would have been a big investment in bigger lunchrooms, more freezers and kitchen staff.

The House version of the budget included the lunch funding, while the Senate version did not. The budget conference committee, which includes three members from each chamber, went with the Senate version.

Rep. Dan Ortiz, I-Ketchikan, representing the House minority caucus, objected to a motion to choose the Senate proposal and asked that the budget include money for those students’ lunches. His objection was outvoted 4-2. Sen. Donny Olson, D-Golovin, voted with Ortiz in favor of the boost for low-income families.

Nearly 4,000 students in Alaska public schools qualify for reduced price lunches.

The decision comes after a food stamp backlog undermined many Alaskans’ food access from 2022 until earlier this year. It left families increasingly reliant on food banks and other relief. As a result, food security — in the form of hiring more people to process food stamp applications and spending millions to support food pantries — was a budget priority of Gov. Mike Dunleavy for the upcoming fiscal year. However, Dunleavy did not propose the reduced school lunch budget item.

Once the conference committee finishes its work, the compromise operating budget will go back to the House and Senate for approvals.

• Claire Stremple is a reporter based in Juneau who got her start in public radio at KHNS in Haines, and then on the health and environment beat at KTOO in Juneau. This article originally appeared online at alaskabeacon.com. Alaska Beacon, an affiliate of States Newsroom, is an independent, nonpartisan news organization focused on connecting Alaskans to their state government. Reporter James Brooks contributed reporting to this article.

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