State Rep. Craig Johnson (center), an Anchorage Republican, consults with a staff member while chairing a House Rules Committee meeting at the Alaska State Capitol on Saturday to hear Senate Bill 140, which as modified by the committee makes sweeping changes to Alaska’s education system. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)

State Rep. Craig Johnson (center), an Anchorage Republican, consults with a staff member while chairing a House Rules Committee meeting at the Alaska State Capitol on Saturday to hear Senate Bill 140, which as modified by the committee makes sweeping changes to Alaska’s education system. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)

Battle lines in massive education bill set by House and Senate majorities

Senate says bill rushed and reckless; House calls it balanced solution to struggling school system.

Senate leaders are calling it a reckless and rushed jumble of education proposals, while House leaders say it’s a balanced and affordable package that highlights things senators don’t want to talk about such as charter schools.

Battle lines for a bill making sweeping changes to Alaska’s education system were defined by House and Senate majority caucus leaders in competing press conferences Tuesday. The bill could see a House floor vote this week after what both majorities agreed was a highly unusual first week of the legislative session due to the rapid pace and types of actions that occurred.

[Sweeping education bill advances to House floor despite overwhelming opposition from educators]

The battle’s focal point is Senate Bill 140, which originated last year simply as an effort to boost rural classroom internet capabilities. But it has become a pufferfish bill since the end of last year’s session as extra per-student funding, district accountability requirements, charter and homeschooling support, year-end teacher bonuses, and services for hearing-impaired students are just some of the provisions — largely taken from a collection of other legislation — assimilated into the current version.

“My philosophy on bills is that once they’ve been introduced they no longer belong to the person, they are the people’s,” said Rep. Craig Johnson, an Anchorage Republican who chairs the House Rules Committee, which presided over the most drastic rewrite SB 140 during the opening week of this year’s session. “So everything is subject to change with the right amount of votes.”

Senate leaders said many of the additional items make major changes whose impacts — financial and beyond — haven’t been properly vetted since it was advanced out of the House Rules Committee on Saturday, the fifth day of this year’s session. Public testimony, mostly from educators and parents, was overwhelmingly against the bill.

“We sent it to the House, a very clean bill dealing with the internet, and we’re really concerned that now a lot has been added to it in the House,” said Senate President Gary Stevens, a Kodiak Republican. “We’re not sure what’s going to come over to us in the end. But we’re a little concerned that it may be so weighted that it will not be able to be passed.”

SB 140 currently adds $300 to the $5,960 Base Student Allocation for public schools, which has remained unchanged since 2017 except for a $30 increase as part of the Alaska Reads Act that took effect last July 1. A one-time increase for the current year of $340 per student is also in effect, meaning the $300 in SB 140 would provide districts with less funding next year.

State education officials and some lawmakers are arguing for a $1,413 BSA increase to offset the effects of inflation since 2017. The Legislature passed a one-time $680 increase last year, but Gov. Mike Dunleavy vetoed half, resulting in the current level of funding.

Senate leaders declined Tuesday to commit to a specific amount they are seeking for a BSA increase. Dunleavy is proposing no increase in his budget for next year, although he has acknowledged that will be subject to negotiation.

The revised Senate bill also makes charter and homeschool students eligible for the same amount of BSA funding, rather than reduced amounts under current law, and gives a board appointed by the governor the power to authorize charter schools rather than keeping it a district-level decision.

Fiscal notes estimate the bill would cost nearly $200 million a year — enough for an increase of more than $700 to the BSA if used for that purpose alone. But Johnson said the revised SB 140 ensures funds go toward targeted educational purposes, such as paying teachers directly with the year-end bonuses, rather than simply entrusting districts to spend the money effectively.

“We put things on the table that are stuck in committees that, quite frankly, I don’t think the other body wants to hear,” he said. “And they will have to discuss it now. And we have people in our caucus and the (minority) caucus in the House that just don’t want to talk about long-term fixes and charter schools and audits and holding people responsible.”

Among recent developments attracting the scrutiny of lawmakers skeptical of large increases in the BSA is the Juneau School District’s massive deficit — estimated at $9.5 million a couple of weeks ago, then revised to roughly $8 million this week — due largely to a series of accounting errors. An amendment added to SB 140 requires random state audits of at least four districts per year, in addition to the existing annual audit requirements for districts.

As for rushing a broad-based bill through quickly, Johnson said his goal in moving it this early in the session is to ensure lawmakers have sufficient time to discuss its various aspects.

Johnson said House floor debate is tentatively scheduled to occur this week. However, the 23-member Republican-led majority includes three members who last week joined minority caucus members in supporting an override of Dunleavy’s veto to half of the increased BSA funds, which could make a vote with the current $300 BSA increase questionable.

If the bill passes a floor vote it most likely would then go to a conference committee of House and Senate members who would attempt to draft a compromise bill, including consulting with Dunleavy about what would be necessary to prevent a veto.

However, Senate leaders said they may instead opt to push through separate legislation — including other existing bills — to achieve their policy goals including the broadband internet provisions of the original SB 140, which uses state money and a federal match to increase minimum internet speed in state schools from 25 to 100 megabits per second.

“It’s seriously important for the whole state,” said Senate Majority Leader Cathy Giessel, an Anchorage Republican. “I was actually asked at a town hall meeting last night what its implications are for health care in rural Alaska. It has a huge impact, potentially, there. So it is a serious thing that we need to get that bill passed clean. I reference a comment that was made on Saturday: ‘Let the games begin.’ This is not a game. These are serious issues. We are here to do serious business. We’re not playing games.”

• Contact Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com or (907) 957-2306.

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