Education Funding in Alaska

The below response was submitted to the Anchorage Daily News on March 6, 2018 but they have refused to publish it. What a shame that they are not willing to engage in the facts. 

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If more funding for K-12 education actually led to increased student achievement, every Alaskan would probably support an increase in that funding. Nat Herz in a recent article (“Here’s what three years of flat funding has meant for Alaska schools”) opined that the state has not increased funding for K-12 and this has led to pink-slipping teachers, increased class sizes and even required Sitka students to write on plain paper! So, is flat funding for the past three years true and if so, is it the cause of low student achievement?

Let’s look at the facts when it comes to the Anchorage School District. The state’s website shows the following Foundation Formula funding: FY15, $327,751,000; FY16, $329,866,000 and: FY17, $330,089,000. Since FY15 funding has increased 1%. But there is more to the story than just this Foundation Formula. There are many more revenue streams flowing to the school districts.

When you look at paying for expenses to operate a home, you look at the total costs including utilities, property taxes and mortgages. With that in mind, in FY16 the ASD received a total of $458,250,000 from the state and federal governments. That’s a lot more than just the Foundation Formula funding above. Matter of fact, that’s 39% more.

When it comes to increased costs for most school districts, health insurance ranks as one of the fastest growing. According to the Sitka School District budget, these costs are said to have increased 12%. For one union in the ASD, which represents teachers, Anchorage taxpayers will be expected to pay an additional $2,735,000 this school year. But here’s the catch. School boards can control these spiraling costs. School boards and school administrations have the fiduciary responsibility to ensure costs are held down through tough contract negotiations. In the past the ASD has bowed to the union’s demands on health insurance cost sharing. How can this be solved? Here’s an idea: millions of dollars could be saved by allowing school districts to participate in the Alaska Cares state insurance program. The legislature proposed just that a few years ago but the bill was fought and defeated by the ASD. Politics, not fiduciary responsibility.

And now teachers are threatened every year by the “pink slip circus”, wondering if they will have jobs next school year. This tactic being used by several districts is demoralizing and unnecessary. Take a look at the ASD. Last year it threatened to pink slip 220 teachers (most all of which it rehired). Why would the district pink slip critical classroom teachers before even thinking about the 354 custodians, 268 food service workers, 200 maintenance personnel, 147 principals/assistant principals, 141 transportation personnel and 95 IT workers? Pink slipping teachers is like Alaska Airlines laying off its pilots and keeping all the support personnel on the payroll. None of us want teachers to be pink slipped. And we don’t need it. And definitely the kids don’t need it.

Many of these ASD support activities could be privatized, potentially saving millions of dollars. For example, the ASD bus contractor hauls two-thirds of the students for nearly the same cost as the ASD hauls the other one-third. We urge the ASD to think outside the box and keep classroom teachers on board and become more efficient through privatizing support functions.

Now we hear that because of “flat funding”, classroom sizes are increasing and children will be the losers. Let’s look at the facts. In the Sitka School District the high schools have 16 pupils per teacher. The Sitka elementary schools have a pupil-to-teacher ratio from 18 to 24 students per teacher, depending on grade. The only reason this district has lost two teachers is due to fewer students, not decreased funding.

Drops in student enrollment are also plaguing the ASD. This year the ASD has lost 667 students and is down 1,200 students over the past five years. Fewer students require less funding. Next year the ASD is projected to have even fewer students. This year, ASD would be losing more than $4 million in state funding through the Foundation Formula. Is this why the district wants to increase the state funding—to offset the loss of students?

Senator MacKinnon is correct when she says, “We always see districts asking for more money to do exactly what they’re doing. And I’m telling you: It appears the system is broken.” Spot on, Senator. We need innovative leadership. We need new ideas for education delivery. We need effective teachers in every classroom. We need accountability for results. We need an education system that gives each and every student the opportunity to succeed.

We need change and we need it now. Yes, it is about the kids. It is not about the money.

David Nees and David Boyle are education research associates at the Alaska Policy Forum. Mr. Nees taught math at ASD for 28 years and has been a supporter of reforming education for years. Mr. Boyle is a retired Air Force officer who is past Executive Director of the Alaska Policy Forum.

Sources:
ASD Funding: https://education.alaska.gov/stats/QuickFacts/StateAid.pdf
ASD Budget: https://apps.asdk12.org/budget/archives/2016-17/index.asp
Sitka Budget: https://www.sitkaschools.org/site/default.aspx?PageType=3&DomainID=4&ModuleInstanceID=16&ViewID=6446EE88-D30C-497E-9316-3F8874B3E108&RenderLoc=0&FlexDataID=4803&PageID=1
ASD Contracts: https://www.asdk12.org/domain/1201
ASD Payroll: http://alaskapolicyforum.org/2017/12/newly-released-anchorage-school-district-payroll/