Gov. Mike Dunleavy tells reporters that he needs to see lawmakers pass his reforms before he allows a permanent increase to funding for schools on Tuesday. (Claire Stremple/Alaska Beacon)

Gov. Mike Dunleavy tells reporters that he needs to see lawmakers pass his reforms before he allows a permanent increase to funding for schools on Tuesday. (Claire Stremple/Alaska Beacon)

Alaskans support increased education funding, reforms, according to Dunleavy poll

Majority of those polled say they think “change and reform” are key to improving Alaska’s test scores.

A poll Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy said there is strong support for increased education funding and that more than half of the public see reforms as crucial to improving the state’s education system. He said a permanent increase to school funding will come only after his reforms are implemented.

Dunleavy said that after he vetoed an education bill containing a historic funding increase and wide-ranging education reforms, he became curious about what Alaskans wanted.

The $37,500 poll he commissioned from Dittman Research said that 77% of Alaskans would like the state to permanently increase funding for schools. Just under 40% of the people surveyed reported having school-aged children.

The survey of 810 people was conducted March 20-24 and designed to be representative of the state’s population. The margin of error was plus or minus 3.4 percentage points.

The results come as lawmakers consider another, similar multipart education bill proposed by the House Rules Committee, which includes both a funding increase and a provision allowing the governor’s appointees on the Board of Education and Early Development to approve charter school proposals.

In a news conference on Tuesday, Dunleavy framed the tensions around education policy as a decision between increasing education funding or reforming the state’s education system, in which students have comparatively low test scores.

Despite his recent veto of a $680 increase to the state’s per pupil funding formula, the lack of an increase to education funding in his proposed budget and the fact that his single largest veto last year was half of the one-time funding for the state’s schools, Dunleavy insists that he wants Alaska schools to get a boost — but only after his policies are approved by the Legislature.

“Once we put a permanent increase in for the BSA, the chances of reform are very slim,” he said, referring to the base student allocation, the mechanism the state uses to fund schools.

Dunleavy described what he has seen after a previous funding increase without other changes.

“Once the money is secured, crickets on outcomes, crickets on reform, crickets,” he said.

Dunleavy pointed to another result that he said supports his policy priorities: More people polled say “change and reform” is the most important way to improve student outcomes than said “funding” is the most important way to improve them.

The education system is in the midst of major reform; in 2022, lawmakers approved the Alaska Reads Act, which lays a framework for how districts and teachers will have all public school children reading by the end of third grade. Lawmakers are considering increasing per pupil funding for students affected by the reform, citing increased demands on teachers and districts.

The major reform Dunleavy seeks is a change to how charter schools are approved. His hotly debated policy would allow his appointees on the state Board of Education and Early Development to approve new charter school proposals.

Notably, a question testing the public’s approval of this policy was absent from his poll.

“It just didn’t come up,” he said with a shrug when asked why not. He added: “There’s only so many questions one can ask.”

He said the charter system needs additional authorizers and, when pressed by journalists in the Tuesday news briefing, said he would “ponder” a group other than his appointees on the board of education.

He told the press to ask groups that support increased education funding why they don’t support his proposal. Alaska Association of School Boards Executive Director Lon Garrison has answered that question. In a March news release, he wrote: “This reform would allow charter schools to bypass the approval of local school districts and instead go directly to the State Board of Education. It is the first and most significant step in a plan to reduce the power of local authorities and provide opportunities for private and religious schools to access public funds.”

The governor’s office disagreed with that view and called it “illogical.”

“The Governor’s advocacy for public charter schools aims to offer families more options for where their child can attend public schools,” said spokesperson Grant Robinson in a written response.

The state’s constitution expressly forbids the use of public money for private schools, but Dunleavy as a senator in 2014 sponsored a law that allows parents of correspondence program students to spend their share of state funds on materials from private and religious schools. He also sought to amend the state’s constitution by striking the line that prohibits the practice.

At least one Alaska correspondence school reimbursed families for private school classes — excluding religious classes — and cited the statute as the authority to do so.

A lawsuit has challenged this.

Another of his major proposals — a series of bonuses over three years for Alaska teachers — was somewhat addressed by the poll, which asked if Alaskans support a “bonus incentive program to recruit and retain teachers.” Seventy-one percent of those polled said they do.

Absent from the poll was a question addressing a rival retention policy that would restore defined-benefit pensions for teachers and other public employees.

There are several reasons why any given poll should be interpreted with caution. Parties who have a stake in the outcome of polls they commission have no obligation to publicly release them if the results are unfavorable to their position. In addition, the way poll questions are framed and ordered can affect the answers people give.

A question in the governor’s poll that tested how many Alaskans believe “change and reform” are the most important factor in improved education outcomes came after a series of questions that point out flaws in the state’s education system. In addition, among people polled with school-aged children, 15% had students in charter schools — charter students are only about 5% of the state’s student population.

A poll commissioned by the state’s largest labor organization immediately following Dunleavy’s veto of Senate Bill 140, the wide-ranging education bill that included the $680 boost to the formula that funds public schools, found that most Alaskans surveyed strongly disapproved of the veto and had a negative opinion of the governor.

The difficulty of polling in Alaska has long been notorious. A decade ago, the director of Dittman Research, Matt Larkin, told The New York Times that low response rates have an outsize impact in the state. This week, he stood by the 810-person sample in the poll Dunleavy commissioned, which he said was “highly representative” of the state’s population when considering age, location, gender and political affiliation.

No matter which way it is polled, the fight in education policy continues over whether schools will receive the permanent funding increase they say they desperately need — and Dunleavy has framed these results as support for his insistence on certain reforms before he will allow lawmakers to boost per pupil funding in Alaska.

• 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.

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