Should local funding of public schools be optional?

Every year, politicians struggle with how much money to put toward public education. Now, they’re asking another question: Who should pay for it? One legislator is making the case that local governments shouldn’t be obligated to contribute to school budgets.

“Onerous.” “Inequitable.” “Unconstitutional.” Those are just some of the words North Pole Republican Tammie Wilson uses to describe the contribution local governments are required to make to their school districts:

The fiscal burden placed on local governments is enormous and consuming.

The way the law is currently written, organized boroughs and municipalities must kick in a share of their property taxes to fund their schools. Communities that aren’t organized – that is, mostly villages off the road system – don’t have to make that contribution.

Wilson wants to change that. Influenced by a lawsuit coming out of the Ketchikan Gateway Borough, Wilson is sponsoring a bill that would make local contributions optional.

It is my feeling, and looking at the Constitution, that the State should fulfill the ‘basic needs formula.’ They made the formula.

Those “basic needs” cost over $200 million, according to the bill’s fiscal note. That number is more than a little concerning to some of Wilson’s fellow lawmakers. The bill was heard in the House Education Committee on Wednesday morning, and it got some pushback from legislators who thought the price tag was high given the state’s $2 billion budget shortfall.

Anchorage Republican Gabrielle LeDoux expressed sympathy for Wilson’s argument. She remembers when she was a mayor, she thought it was unfair that some communities had to make contributions and others didn’t.

As a borough official, I would probably be head-over-heels in love with this bill.

But …

I’m just not sure at the moment what the impact it would have on the state budget.

Rep. Paul Seaton, a Homer Republican, was even more blunt.

“I have no confidence at all that the state is going to backfill $200 million,” said Seaton.

He added that if the bill were to pass, it might have unintended consequences, like making the definition of “basic needs” less generous. The state might be less willing to put money toward things like vocational education, for example.

Peggy Wilson of Wrangell also wondered if putting the state totally in charge of funding education might mean more meddling from, well, legislators like them.

“There may be legislators that say, ‘Wow, we gave them local control, but they were doing something. They were donating something. But now, we’re giving all the money, so why don’t we have more say of how they teach?” said Peggy Wilson.

Bill sponsor Tammie Wilson argued that all the money talk was beside the point, and that her legislation was a matter of constitutional principle.

“We made boroughs become boroughs whether they wanted to or not, based on a promise that we didn’t keep. Will we have to take it out of somewhere else? Well, last I heard, children are like our number-one priority in the state unless that’s changed in the last few minutes,” said Tammie Wilson. “So, if some others don’t get it, well, sometimes you just have to take on those responsibilities and figure out a better way to do it.”

Whether Wilson’s bill passes or not, the constitutional question is something the state will eventually have to reckon with. Last month, the Ketchikan Gateway Borough filed a lawsuit making a similar argument that the state was obligated to fully fund education in all districts, and the Fairbanks North Star Borough is considering joining the suit.

Watch the committee meeting courtesy of Gavel Alaska:

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