This article was originally published in the Anchorage Daily News on February 15, 2023.
OPINION: Student-centered funding could fix Alaska’s education outcomes
By Sarah Montalbano
Total spending per Alaska K-12 student was more than $18,000 in 2020 — 35% more than the national average, and that doesn’t count millions of dollars in COVID-19 relief and some other related funds.
That might be alright if the state was seeing dramatic improvement in educational outcomes; after all, a decent education doesn’t necessarily come cheap. But we’re not getting the outcomes we’re paying for: Our state is at the bottom of the nation in reading and math. Increasing education spending without demanding improvements in outcomes would be a mistake.
Alaska’s fourth graders were 49th nationwide in reading on the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP. Fourth graders are 15 months behind the national average in reading and only one in four are reading at grade level. Mathematics is a similar story: Alaskan fourth graders have lost six months of learning since the 2019 NAEP and are a year behind the national average.
It’s tempting to blame this situation on pandemic school closures, and while those certainly didn’t help, the situation has been dismal for a long time. Alaska has ranked within the bottom 10 states on fourth-grade reading since 2003.
Increased spending is being treated as a cure-all for Alaska’s education system. The Alaska Association of School Boards, or AASB, is pressing the Legislature to raise the base student allocation, aka BSA, by at least $860 per student. The Senate Education Committee has introduced a bill to increase the BSA from $5,960 to $6,960. This $1,000 increase would be multiplied by a district’s average daily membership and weighted for students with special needs and students in rural areas. The Legislative Budget and Audit Committee estimates a total increase of $257 million in state funding in 2024 if the BSA were raised by $1,000.
Throwing more money at Alaska’s dismal educational outcomes sounds nice until one considers that increases in funding are often funneled into administrative and support staff, not teachers. Alaska’s expenditures on education rose by almost one-third between 2002 and 2020 after adjusting for inflation. Revenues from federal sources increased by 7% and local sources increased by 12% — while state revenues increased by 50%.
Where did that money go? It wasn’t to teachers in the classroom: Per-pupil spending on instructional salaries increased by a minuscule 1% between 2002 and 2020. The number of teaching staff declined by about 7% from 2002 to 2019. At the same time, per-pupil spending on school and general administrator salaries increased by 42% and 18%, respectively. In line with this increase, the number of non-teachers increased by 5% statewide from 2002 to 2019.
It’s clear where Alaska’s priorities are. More positions outside of the classroom are being funded than those within the classroom. Teachers comprised more than half of all staff in only seven of Alaska’s 53 school districts in the last academic year. Statewide, there are three teachers for every four staff performing functions other than teaching.
While some of these functions are surely worthwhile, they’re obviously peripheral to ensuring students leave Alaska’s schools with the basic skills needed to succeed. Funding should be prioritized for teachers and students in the classroom.
Simply increasing education spending won’t cure Alaska’s lackluster public education system. Instead, funding should prioritize students rather than staff and reward good outcomes. We should take a lesson from Tennessee, which recently simplified its school funding formula to allow greater flexibility in district spending. The state now allocates $6,860 per student and adjusts for students in rural communities, special needs students, English language learners and low-income students.
In addition to direct grants for early literacy and other programs, Tennessee’s funding formula includes outcomes-based funding that incentivizes schools for elementary students proficient in English language arts. For high schools, districts are rewarded for students who score well or improve their scores on college entrance exams or earn an industry credential.
Alaska should move toward requiring districts to show academic improvement — and the districts getting results are often those spending their funds directly on teachers and students, not administrative bloat. If the Legislature is going to amend the base student allocation, it should tie Alaska’s school funding formula to outcomes and stop handing districts a blank check without accountability.
Sarah Montalbano is the Education Policy Analyst at Alaska Policy Forum, and a contributor and Northwest Regional Leader with Young Voices. Montalbano was a Robert L. Bartley Fellow at the Wall Street Journal.