Alaska School Aid System Challenged in Court
Alaska parents, teachers, and school advocates who say that a recent hike in education funding doesn't go nearly far enough have taken their concerns to court.
A coalition representing those interests has filed a lawsuit seeking a greater cash infusion for the state's schools and a more equitable method of distribution.
Filed by Alaska's largest teachers' union, several parents, two rural school districts, and a rural-advocacy organization, the suit contends that a lack of sufficient funding violates the state constitution and results in a shortage of teachers, school programs, course offerings, and support services for students. The impact is particularly great, it says, on students with disabilities and those in Alaska's rural districtssome of the most remote areas in the United States.
Alaska joins 22 other states currently defending themselves against school finance lawsuits, according to the Campaign for School Equity, an advocacy group located in New York City.
The new suit was filed in August, just months after Alaska's Republican-controlled legislature and Gov. Frank Murkowski, who shares that party affiliation, approved an $82 million increase in state funding for education. The increase raised the total education budget for fiscal 2005 by 11 percent, to $802 million, and included a boost in annual per-pupil spending of $507, to $4,567.
But the plaintiffswho include the isolated 1,900-student Bering Strait and 450-student Yupiit school districtssay that action did little to address the long-term funding shortfalls in schools. Bill A. Bjork, the pre sident of the 13,000-member Alaska Education Association, a plaintiff in the suit, noted that lawmakers rejected a proposal offered by the governor during a special session in June. Gov. Murkowski's plan would have let the state tap Alaska's $28 billion Permanent Fund to help pay for government services, possibly including education.
The lawsuit, filed in state superior court in Anchorage, asks the court to force the state to conduct an analysis of the costs of increasing necessary services to schools, and then to increase funding to meet those costs. It would probably be up to the legislature to approve changes in how the state pays for education, Mr. Bjork said.
"We have a failure of political will," he maintained. "It's not that we don't have the fiscal ability; it's a political problem."
State Chief Cites Gains
But the state education commissioner, Roger Sampson, credited Gov. Murkowski's administration with being aggressive in seeking ways to increase spending on education.
Mr. Sampson said he did not object to the lawsuit's call for a study of school funding across the state. But the commissioner, a former rural schools superintendent in Alaska, noted that the state's funding formula already adjusts for the higher costs facing schools in remote regions, some of which are only reachable by airplane.
The commissioner also cited the recent strides that Alaska's schools have made in showing adequate yearly progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Fifty-eight percent of Alaska's 497 schools met yearly-progress targets in the most recent academic year, compared with 42 percent a year ago, according to figures released by the state last month.
While it would be up to state legislators to change the finance system, Mr. Sampson said supporters of increased school funding should not ignore another reality: Many Alaskans clearly were skeptical about recent proposals to pay for education and other government services through the Permanent Fund, which was created through oil revenues.
"I support funding for education, but I think we also need to approach it realistically," Mr. Sampson said. "What is being advocated for [by the lawsuit's plaintiffs] is not acceptable to the Alaskan people."
Vol. 24, Issue 02, Page 31