The Seward Phoenix Log - News of the Eastern Kenai Peninsula since 1966

By Elstun Lauesen
For The LOG 

School funding in Alaska traditionally based on principle of equitable funding

Point of View


The real history of education in Alaska began with the Organic Act of 1884 which directed the Secretary of the Interior to provide for education of children in Alaska without regard to race. This mandate came with an appropriation from Congress of $25,000 for education in Alaska. Sheldon Jackson, a Presbyterian leader, served until 1908.

Because Congress appropriated only a fraction of the revenues needed for educating Alaskan kids, the resourceful Mr. Jackson came up with a scheme that had far-reaching impacts on rural Alaska. Russian Orthodox and Catholic Missions already dominated certain areas of the territory; the rest were divided by Jackson among the Monrovians (Bethel), Episcopalians (Tanana) Presbyterians (Barrow) and the Society of Friends (Kotzebue). The influence of these religious cultures on their regions continues to this day.

In the 20th century funding for Alaska’s educational system was a combination federal, territorial and local revenues. The federal government contributed a portion of the revenues it received from the sale of timber, the terrirtory paid a portion of the revenues it received from fisheries, and every working Alaskan was assessed $5 a year as a school tax.

One of the driving forces for statehood was the desire by Alaskans to unify standards and revenues for education. The Alaska constitution envisioned education as a universal right and it was one of the progressive visions of the founders of the state that education would be the prime directive of the state. The future of the new state was to be underwritten by a strong and continuous investment in Alaska’s education system, K-20.

It took 12 years for the new state to seriously begin addressing this concept of comprehensive, universal education with the passage of the first Comprehensive School Foundation Act. This act was ambitious in that it attempted to “equalize” the amount of funds available throughout the state. Despite the high cost of small rural schools, the principle of “equitable funding” remained intact despite what has been described as “roaring debates” about rural school cost differentials.

Now we need to keep in mind that this almost unique approach to formula funding for our schools was conceived and carried out before the pipeline. The 1969 ‘bonus bid’ for Prudhoe Bay exploration and development brought in $900 million to the state and made the funding of the state’s “pie directive” possible, but this was still a system supported by individual Alaskans who paid both an Income Tax and an individual school tax to the state token this educational vision alive.

In the years that followed, “fully funding” education remained a sacrosanct “prime directive” of the legislature under the leadership of both parties. Only once since statehood, during the years of the great oil price collapse in the mid-1980s did the legislature reduce the formula, that was during 1986 and it was required by exigencies of a fiscal collapse.

The question Alaskans now need to be asking is why, in 2012, when there is no real fiscal emergency and the governor and the house seem willing to give back revenues to any number of commercial interests (not the least of which are the oil companies to the tune of $2 billion p.a.), why are they trying to cut education funding? Fortunately, the senate, with SB-171, is trying to provide educational funding based on a 3-year forward funding proposal that generally is in keeping with the foundation formula.

The governor’s December budget proposal includes what he calls “fully-funding schools” and is anything but. The governor has called for keeping funding at base with a slight increase that is less than the rate of inflation. To offset operating cuts, the governor wants to provide a one-time only support in the capital budget for so-called infrastructure costs and fuel offsets. This idea may look good, but huge price differentials in rural Alaska will make the efficiency of those non-operating dollars low. So Mr. Parnell’s proposed budget will make him the first governor in history to propose a cut in education spending.

The impact of the governor’s cut to education can be seen by simply showing what the difference between the SB 171 and the governor’s proposed spending plan.

For the Kenai Peninsula, SB 171, which adheres to the existing formula with inflation, will add $2.1 million to the FY 13 budget; for the Lower Kuskokwim, the senate bill will add $1.6 million in FY 13.

So to the string of broken promises of this governor, we may add his promise to be the “education Governor.”

All Alaskans should be grateful to the senate for standing between their kids and the governor and his allies in the house. Without the senate, the forward progress of the history of education in Alaska would come to a screeching halt this year.

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