The Final Push!

Lon Garrison, AASB Executive Director

We are heading into the final furlong as we race to finish the legislative session. This legislative session has been the busiest on record for bills that are either directly focused on education or have some impact on education. A total of 183 bills were introduced that affect education. As we come into the home stretch, a few bills have made it through most of the gauntlet of committee work and will need the support of school boards, parents, and community members to become law. The bills I will be highlighting below may have some of the greatest impacts on Alaska Public Education we have seen in many, many years.

While Norm and I provide a significant amount of input and testimony to the legislature, your voice, representing school boards across the state, is unique because you represent the same constituents the legislators do.  School board members can have influence with their own communities and can be an influential force in getting them to participate in advocacy.

I would like to present the “lay of the land” as Norm and I currently see the priority education bills in play.

1.  SB 111 – Alaska Reads Act 

This bill, which has been in development through two separate legislatures, was reintroduced in the first session of the 32nd Legislature in January 2021. The Alaska Reads Act provides targeted and specific support to help address the chronic and severe deficiency of the Alaska education system to address early learning and literacy adequately. This legislation provides a unique opportunity to combine the science of reading and cultural responsiveness by supporting reading instruction in any language, especially in rural Alaska, where indigenous language is so important. With literacy focus and early childhood education, there is a unique opportunity to make a significant, systemic change that directly affects student outcomes. 

AASB believes this bill is pivotal for ensuring that Governor Dunleavy will consider additional education funding.  Sen. Begich and Sen. Holland have stated that without passage of this bill, the Governor will likely veto any additional education funding, whether it is inside or outside the foundation formula.  The Governor has made this statement publicly as well.  The Senate Education Committee, and especially Senator Begich and Senator Hughes, have worked hard to make the bill more responsive to concerns regarding being culturally responsive and being supportive, not punitive.  There is still much more that can be done to make this bill “perfect,” but at this point, it is an excellent start and something that can be built upon in the future.  A major benefit of this bill is offering Pre-K grant funding for any district that would like to start or expand an early childhood learning program.  This is a huge deal!!  There is no other bill that would provide this type and scope of support for pre-k education.  SB 111 addresses one of AASB’s longstanding legislative priorities – Literacy as a Fundamental Human Right.

Advocacy supporting SB111 currently needs to be directed towards the House Education Committee, then the House Finance Committee. Time is of the essence!

2.  HB 272 and HB 273 – BSA Increase

These two bills currently sit in House Rules.  As it stands, we are awaiting the decision of the Rules Committee to schedule it for consideration by the House.  Time is of the essence as these bills need to pass the House before moving to the Senate.  It is probably a long shot at this point but still very worthy of our advocacy. HB 272 and HB 273 are truly the only way for education funding to begin to account for the increasing costs of operations each year. The BSA has not changed since 2017.

As an aside and related to the point of increasing the BSA, the operating budget is currently being addressed in Senate Finance.  At present, Senator Stedman offered an amendment of $60 million outside the foundation for education.  The amendment was recently approved.  I believe it is worth advocating to the Senate Finance Committee that while we appreciate the 60 million, it does not solve our problem of continuing not to meet our basic costs.  Funding outside the formula puts us back to square-1 next year.

3. HB 350 – Bond Debt Reimbursement

This legislation would eliminate the current moratorium, which extends until 2025, and re-establish the state’s cost-share to 60 to 70%.  Currently, the cost dare is 40-50%.  Nearly every community, including the larger municipalities, will struggle to pass bond issues or be able to afford them on their own.  Our schools and many public facilities have surpassed their design life.  The cost of maintenance continues to increase.  It is hard to offer quality education in facilities that no longer function correctly.

While there are many other education bills out there, these are the three that could have the most significant impact on school districts and perhaps a real chance to cross the finish line. One other bill, HB 220 Retirement Systems; Defined Benefit Option, is another example of significant systems change that can make Alaska public education better. It is currently residing in House Rules.

The legislation I have highlighted here, should it pass, will make your life as a school board member more fulfilling and more impactful to your stakeholders because they can provide resources to help meet your student’s needs. I urge each of you to take every opportunity to be an advocate for your district and your students.

Norm, Steve, and I will work to keep you up to date on chances to testify to these and other essential education bills.  These opportunities happen quickly, so be vigilant!  Written testimony is very influential and is an easy way to maintain influence on what we are hoping to achieve.

We are rounding the bend and heading for the homestretch. Can we get to the finish line and make a difference? I believe we can!

Thank you for all you do as school board members. I look forward to hearing your strong voices.

Sincerely yours,

Lon Garrison

Executive Director, AASB