The House Education Committee hears public testimony on a multipart education bill on Monday. Members of the public chided lawmakers for a dysfunctional meeting. (Claire Stremple/Alaska Beacon)

The House Education Committee hears public testimony on a multipart education bill on Monday. Members of the public chided lawmakers for a dysfunctional meeting. (Claire Stremple/Alaska Beacon)

Committee advances Alaska education bill with Gov. Dunleavy priorities, historic funding increase

The meeting was dysfunctional enough that the public scolded lawmakers in testimony.

Members of the House Education Committee advanced a new multipart education proposal on Monday after more than a dozen amendments failed.

House Bill 392, a proposal carried by Rep. Tom McKay, R-Anchorage, includes a historic $680 increase to the per-pupil formula used to fund public schools. It would also give a governor’s appointees on the state Board of Education and Early Development the power to approve new charter schools, increase the funding for correspondence program students by nearly a third, and boost support for student transportation and reading.

The bill, which does not yet have a cost estimate, will next be heard by the House Finance Committee; it has not been scheduled.

It was initially written to include a boost to the student funding formula, increase internet speeds in rural schools and implement Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s teacher retention bonus proposal.

By the end of the fractious meeting, the bill had changed substantially — as the result of a committee substitute from the sponsor rather than any of the 14 proposed amendments. Major items, including an increase to internet speeds in rural schools, which already passed in another bill, and the teacher retention bonus, were taken out.

The final result has similarities with Senate Bill 140, which was overwhelmingly approved by legislators and vetoed by Dunleavy.

The committee, chaired on Monday by Rep. Jamie Allard, R-Eagle River, was punctuated by tense side conversations between members.

Reps. Rebecca Himschoot, I-Sitka, and Andi Story, D-Juneau, proposed 14 amendments. One of them — a requirement that the state board of education consider a recommendation of the local school district when deciding on charter applications — passed.

The rest failed, with Reps. Himschoot, Story and CJ McCormick, D-Bethel, in support and Reps. Jamie Allard, R-Eagle River; Justin Ruffridge, R-Soldotna; Tom McKay, R-Anchorage; and Mike Prax, R-North Pole, opposed.

Charters

Himschoot, Story and McCormick opposed allowing the governor’s appointees on the state board to authorize charter schools.

Himschoot said that the state’s charters are performing well and that she has yet to see a good reason to change how they are managed: “It feels like we’re making kind of an uninformed major policy shift with this section,” she said.

That logic informed another failed amendment that would have included a requirement that districts collect data about charter school enrollment and wait lists. Himschoot said that legislators have been hearing about wait lists and the need for more schools without data to back up the claims.

“If we’re going to be changing what we do with charter schools — which I don’t think is a good idea since they’re doing so well — But if that’s what we’re going to do, then let’s make sure we’re making the changes that need to be made based on data,” she said.

McKay opposed the amendment, saying it would single out charters compared with other public schools. “I don’t know why we would need to gather more information from charter schools than we do from public schools,” he said.

Co-chair Allard reminded the committee that charter schools are public schools.

The charter provision in the bill was a major sticking point in previous legislation. It has been described by members of the Senate as a “nonstarter” in previous education policy negotiations because they say it weakens local control in districts.

Correspondence

The new version of the bill would significantly increase funding to correspondence students. Correspondence education is district-supported schooling at home.

Currently, those students are supported with 90% of the state funding that students in brick and mortar schools receive per pupil. House Bill 392 would increase the funding to 120% of the per pupil formula, at a cost that has not yet been determined. McKay’s office estimates it will have a fiscal note with that number by Tuesday or Wednesday.

Story’s office estimated the cost would be more than $40 million and proposed amendments that would have significantly lowered the increase. She said a more moderate increase is appropriate because the state’s neighborhood schools have more expenses than students who learn from home do.

“Correspondence schools, while important, do not have the same duties, obligations and responsibilities that our neighborhood schools do. It’s a fact that our neighborhood schools have more facilities to care for and more public use. They have custodial and maintenance costs. They have to pay insurance costs for their buildings, which have risen extensively,” she said.

Trevor Jepsen, staff to McKay, said the increase in funding would be good for districts.

“When we increase that factor, it increases school districts’ funding, so there’s more money going to education,” he said. “And there’s no requirement that that money has to even be spent on the correspondence programs. It’s just more money for districts and we hope they spend it on correspondence programs.”

Himschoot proposed an amendment that would ask districts to be accountable for how that money is spent, which failed.

Reading

HB 392 would add money to districts for every student affected by the state’s literacy reform law — an additional $180 for each student from kindergarten to third grade.

Previous legislation sought an increase of $500 for each student with performance low enough to merit intervention. Dunleavy cited that policy as one of the reasons he vetoed previous education legislation. He said he thought that funding mechanism would reward poor performance rather than incentivizing success; some teachers and advocates of the provision said the additional money is crucial to provide the additional services those students would require.

An amendment from Story sought to increase the $180 to $500, but failed.

She and Himschoot, both former educators, noted that reading interventions are costly and include extra tutoring, specialized reading programs and summer school.

Contention

The meeting moved a large bill with more than a dozen amendments quickly, but it did not run smoothly. Lawmakers were snappish and Allard called multiple pauses in the proceedings to manage or voice discontent.

There was contention among lawmakers as to whether or not the public testimony noticed online would occur. It did, but only after the committee’s Republican members adopted a new version of the bill and rejected most amendments.

At one point, Allard was interrupted by Himschoot, who insisted that public testimony be held when it appeared to her that some members of the public may not be heard.

“I want to hear what they have to say,” she said. “You noticed public testimony and then you didn’t offer it.”

Allard shot back: “If you would let me finish my sentence you would see that I’m going to continue to address this in the room. Are you done with your tantrum?”

The fractiousness was so pronounced that members of the public chided lawmakers in public testimony.

Rachel Lord, a Homer parent and business owner, praised the bill for raising the student funding formula and its increase to correspondence studies, but said she would have liked to see Himschoot’s accountability amendment pass. She criticized committee leadership.

“As I’ve been listening this morning, it’s incredibly confusing,” she said, adding that the online portal for public documents had not been updated. “I don’t know who’s responsible for making that happen, but it is rare in my experience with trying to follow the Legislature that there is such a gap and lack of transparency in the committee process.”

Will Muldoon, a member of the Juneau school board who spoke on his own behalf, called the meeting “indecorous.”

“It’s sad that a committee that couldn’t meet for three weeks is more dysfunctional when they finally do meet,” he said. “And so I hope you guys take a moment to reflect on that and encourage you all to do better.”

• 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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