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Published in Print: May 20, 1998, as Alaska Legislature Approves Measure To Revamp School Funding Formula

Alaska Legislature Approves Measure To Revamp School Funding Formula

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Alaska lawmakers approved a plan last week to overhaul a school funding system often criticized for its disparate treatment of urban and rural districts.

Squeaking in a vote just minutes before the legislative session ended at midnight May 12, the Senate voted 11-9 to approve a bill designed to give the more densely populated districts a greater portion of state aid. The House had passed the measure hours before by a vote of 29-11.

Unlike an earlier, more divisive version of the bill, which would have effectively reduced aid for more than 30 rural districts, the approved legislation ensures that only one district would face a budget cut as a result of the revised funding formula. ("Alaska To Take On School Finance Reform," Jan. 21, 1998.)

The fate of the legislation now hinges on Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles, who has not yet decided whether to sign it, said Bob King, a spokesman for the governor.

Rural vs. Urban

The bill would divide up state funds by student enrollment, but still factor in the increased cost of educating students in remote parts of the state where all supplies must arrive by dog sled or plane. Under the current formula, districts receive aid based on the number of "instructional units" they serve.

The state defines an instructional unit as a group of 13 secondary school students or a group of 17 elementary school students.

Urban legislators have often complained that the formula favors rural budgets at the expense of urban schools.

"The goal was to fix a formula developed more through a political process than an analytic process," said Sen. Gary Wilken, a Republican from Fairbanks who heads the Senate education committee. "We've correctly identified the cost of educating students in Alaska."

Facing opposition by rural legislators and a sure veto by Gov. Knowles, members of the Republican majority agreed to amend the bill to include a guaranteed funding "floor" for rural districts that would otherwise face budget cuts under the legislation.

With the floor, the state would maintain at least current funding levels for all but the 2,000-student North Slope Borough district, an oil-rich district with a $43.1 million annual operating budget.

The district would lose roughly $1.8 million in state aid under the new plan.

To pay for the new formula and other measures, the bill would pump an additional $20 million into the state's $660 million education budget.

Mr. Knowles favors the current version of the bill over earlier drafts, but is unhappy with the last-minute inclusion of a provision that would effectively give some rural districts 60 percent of what urban districts receive for new student enrollment.

"The dilemma we face is whether it's worth forsaking the whole bill for this amendment," said Mr. King, the governor's spokesman.

The bill also includes $1.8 million for the development of accountability measures under the Quality Schools Initiative, the governor's plan for mandatory state assessments.

Vol. 17, Issue 36, Page 22

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