Dunleavy statement on school funding draws attention from education advocates

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy speaks at a press conference outside Wasilla Middle School in Wasilla on June 14. The middle school is Dunleavy's suggested venue for a special session of the Alaska Legislature.
Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy speaks at a press conference outside Wasilla Middle School in Wasilla on June 14. Dunleavy said Friday that he views education as the cornerstone to any society, leaving some education advocates hopeful that he’ll have a different approach to schools in the next budget. (Photo by Wesley Early/Alaska Public Media)

Statements Gov. Mike Dunleavy made on Friday have some education advocates hopeful his next budget will reflect a different approach to public school funding than the deep cuts he proposed in February.

Dunleavy made the comments in response to a court ruling against his administration, which said school funding for this year that was passed last year is valid. Dunleavy said that regardless of the case’s outcome, it won’t lead to a cut in school funding this year.

In a statement, Dunleavy said Alaskans need to know the case is about the process lawmakers are using to fund education, not about how much funding education receives.

“K-12 education spending has not been cut, nor will it be cut regardless of what the courts ultimately decide,” he said. “I dedicated a career as a public school teacher in Alaska. I view education as the cornerstone to any society and to individual futures.”

While the case is about the current school year, Dunleavy’s statement has some education funding supporters hopeful that the governor will change his approach to school funding in the budget he proposes for next year.

Sarah Sledge, executive director of the nonprofit Coalition for Education Equity, is among them.

“Hopefully he’s been listening to Alaskans about how important education is to them, and is ready to have a conversation about how we can move that forward, and what kind of an investment it takes,” she said. “And we would welcome that conversation with him.”

Sledge said school advocates would rather talk with the administration about improving outcomes than about funding. She said she’d support Dunleavy’s goal of improving reading in the state. But she said that will be impossible if Dunleavy proposes cutting education by nearly a quarter like he did in February  — a reduction of $314 million.

“Our school districts are not getting enough funding now,” Sledge said. “Our schools need a great investment to be successful.”

Dunleavy had proposed the cut as part of plan to pay for a full, roughly $3,000 permanent fund dividend under a 1982 state law, without proposing new state taxes.

Dunleavy will propose a new budget by Dec. 15. And he will have to close a gap of more than $1 billion between what the state spends and what it brings in, if he again proposes full PFDs.

Dunleavy spokesperson Jeff Turner said the administration is still working on the education budget, and that it’s premature to talk about the governor’s plans.

“It’s important to point out that he is committed to the state’s education system and doing everything he can while he’s governor to improve outcomes for students in rural and urban Alaska,” Turner said.

Rep. Dan Ortiz, I-Ketchikan, speaks during a House floor session in Juneau on March 29, 2019.
Rep. Dan Ortiz, I-Ketchikan, speaks during a House floor session in Juneau on March 29, 2019. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

Ketchikan independent Rep. Dan Ortiz said Dunleavy’s education budget proposal last session was a nonstarter. He chairs the House Finance subcommittee on education and early development.

Ortiz said the governor will have to demonstrate his commitment to education through the budget proposal.

“What he submits on Dec. 15, and then what the Legislature decides to appropriate, and then whether or not he vetoes that — you know, that’s where the illustration of his words will come to fruition, or they won’t,” Ortiz said.

The Legislative Council sued the governor and two state commissioners after Dunleavy and Attorney General Kevin Clarkson said the money passed last year for the current school year isn’t valid. Dunleavy said the case is about the concept of funding schools in future years, and the appropriation process in general.

Juneau Superior Court Judge Daniel Schally ruled on Thursday that the school funding passed last year was valid. Clarkson said he’ll appeal the ruling.