Alaska House bill would fund schools ahead of time, prevent pink slips

Rep. Sara Rasmussen, R-Anchorage, speaks in favor of an amendment she proposed on April 21, 2021, in the Alaska State Capitol in Juneau, Alaska. The amendment would commit the Legislature to fund public education for the school year starting in 2022, a year ahead of time. (Gavel Alaska screen capture)
Rep. Sara Rasmussen, R-Anchorage, speaks in favor of an amendment she proposed on Wednesday in the Capitol. The amendment would commit the Legislature to fund public education for the school year starting in 2022, a year ahead of time. (Gavel Alaska screen capture)

A bill being debated in the Alaska House of Representatives is aimed at funding public schools for the next two years. 

House Bill 169 would fund education ahead of the rest of the state budget, to avoid teachers and other school staff receiving layoff notices next month. This happens when the Legislature goes deep into May without passing a budget, triggering notices required under teachers’ contracts.   

The education funding is usually included in the same bill as the rest of the state budget. But there have been years when it was provided in a separate bill, to prevent pink slips. And there have also been times when it was funded more than a year ahead of time. But the state had savings to draw from at that time. 

The House amended the bill on Wednesday seeking to assure funding for not just the school year starting this summer, but the one after that. 

Anchorage Republican Rep. Sara Rasmussen explained why she sponsored the amendment

“Over the last year, students have faced many disruptions due to the pandemic,” she said. “And I think that it’s incredibly important that the Legislature provide some stability.” 

And Democratic Rep. Harriet Drummond said that during the nine years she was on the Anchorage School Board, it was terrifying not knowing how the Legislature would handle school funding. She said the amendment is reassuring.

“There’s a great sigh of relief that’s going to be felt all across this state, from school districts, school board members, parents when they understand that their child’s teacher will be able to stick around,” she said, adding that teachers could “make plans, buy a home, stay in the community.”

Several members of the all-Republican minority caucus said the amendment for the extra year of funding should have been discussed earlier. 

Rep. Ben Carpenter, R-Nikiski, speaks against an amendment to House Bill 169 on April 21, 2021, in the Alaska State Capitol in Juneau, Alaska. (Gavel Alaska screen capture)
Rep. Ben Carpenter, R-Nikiski, speaks against an amendment to House Bill 169 on Wednesday in the Capitol. The amendment would commit the Legislature to fund public education for the school year starting in 2022, a year ahead of time.   (Gavel Alaska screen capture)

Nikiski Republican Rep. Ben Carpenter said lawmakers don’t know enough about the effect of the amendment. 

“I’m not making an argument that early funding or forward funding education is not in the best interest of the school districts or of the teachers or of the students — or any other emotional plea we can put forward as to why this is necessary,” he said. “What I’m speaking to is how we do business on this floor.”

Wasilla Republican Rep. David Eastman said the amendment would prevent the Legislature from holding school districts accountable. He said all parts of the state government normally compete for funding. 

“This amendment and the idea that we would take our public education system out of that competitive process is why our system is failing our students, why our system is failing in many cases our parents, and why it is failing our teachers,” he said. 

The vote to pass the amendment was 25 to 14.

Three minority-caucus Republicans from Interior Alaska — Fairbanks Reps. Bart LeBon and Steve Thompson and Tok Rep. Mike Cronk — voted for the amendment. The other 14 minority caucus members present voted against it. All 15 Democrats, four independents and two Republicans in the majority caucus voted for it, as did Rasmussen, who isn’t in a caucus. Anchorage Republican Rep. David Nelson was absent.

The amendment could be complicated by a court case recently argued in front of the Alaska Supreme Court. The court is weighing whether it is constitutional to fund schools a year ahead of time when the money isn’t sitting in a state account. 

The bill would provide $1.2 billion this year and — if the state formula to fund schools stays the same — a similar amount next year.

The House is scheduled to debate the full bill on Thursday. If it passes, it would be sent to the Senate.  

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