After bipartisan education bill passes Senate, Gov. Dunleavy says it 'falls far short'

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Feb. 26—JUNEAU — Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy cast doubt on an education package that overwhelmingly passed through the Legislature on Monday, issuing a statement on social media that said the bill "falls far short of improving outcomes for students."

Senate Bill 140 includes the largest nominal increase to school formula funding in state history, extra funding for home-schooled students, provisions intended to support parents navigating the charter school application process, and provisions so eligible schools can apply by the end of the month to increase their internet download speeds.

After days of closed-door meetings, the Alaska House on Thursday passed the bill on a 38-2 vote. The Senate approved the bipartisan package on an 18-1 vote Monday with Wasilla GOP Sen. Mike Shower opposed. Sen. James Kaufman, R-Anchorage, had an excused absence from the floor.

In total, only three of 60 Alaska legislators voted against advancing the bipartisan education package to the governor. Less than an hour after the Senate passed the bill, Dunleavy took to social media to voice his concerns.

"My initial review of the education bill is that it falls far short of improving outcomes for students," Dunleavy said in a prepared statement. "It appears to do the same thing we have done for decades — just spend more money."

He has scheduled a press conference to discuss the education bill, starting Tuesday at 12:45 p.m. in Anchorage. It will also be livestreamed on YouTube.

SB 140 was transmitted to Dunleavy on Monday afternoon, which triggered the start of a 15-day window, excluding Sundays, for the governor to act.

Dunleavy could sign the bill or allow it to pass into law without his signature. He could also veto the bill, and it would require two-thirds of the Legislature voting in joint session to override his veto. It remained unclear Monday if 40 of 60 legislators would vote to do that.

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The governor's Monday social media post sparked a flurry of activity from lawmakers who thought it signaled the governor would veto the education package.

House Speaker Cathy Tilton and Rep. Craig Johnson voted in favor of the education bill. But both Republican lawmakers on Monday declined to comment on whether they would vote to override a veto.

"I've heard what the governor said," Johnson said about Dunleavy's social media post. "And we've gone through the process. He's got his role. We have ours."

The package includes a $175 million increase to school formula funding, which equates to a $680 boost to the Base Student Allocation, the state's per-student funding formula. Education advocates have said a funding increase twice that size is needed as school funding in Alaska has not been substantially increased since 2017.

Anchorage independent Rep. Calvin Schrage, the House minority leader, said that the vote tallies in the House and Senate show "there's a ton of bipartisan support for this educational package."

"This expands educational opportunities, and I think is a win for Alaskans, no matter what educational pathway they seek. And I hope that the governor sees that," Schrage said, adding that he would vote to override a veto of the bill.

Dunleavy earlier in February spoke passionately in support of establishing more charter schools and giving bonuses to teachers. The governor proposed paying $58 million in bonuses each of the next three years, ranging from $5,000 for teachers in urban Alaska to $15,000 for teachers in rural Alaska.

The bipartisan package does not include the teacher bonus proposal. Dunleavy said Monday that the package would do nothing to recruit and retain teachers, despite the addition of nonbinding intent language that says districts shall use a portion of additional funding for educator salary and bonuses.

On the Senate floor Monday, Palmer Republican Sen. Shelley Hughes said she would vote to approve the education package, but she would also support the governor if he chose to veto it.

Hughes said after Monday's vote that she had heard particular frustration from Dunleavy that the teacher bonuses weren't part of the final education package.

The governor also had proposed for a statewide board that he appoints to authorize new charter schools without the approval of local school districts. That provision was not included in the Legislature's final education package.

Instead, lawmakers added funding for a statewide coordinator to help parents navigate the charter school application process, and an appeals process to the education commission if a school had its charter revoked.

Dunleavy said in his social media post that the Legislature's education package "fails to improve access to public charter schools."

The bill includes $500 per K-3 student eligible for reading interventions at an estimated cost of $10 million per year. The funding boost came after education advocates last year said a wide-ranging reading bill known as the Alaska Reads Act was underfunded after it was approved by the Legislature two years ago.

The education package also includes roughly $14.5 million in extra funding for home-schooled students. Those students currently receive 90% of BSA funding, but under the bill, they would instead get 100% of that funding, the same as students at brick-and-mortar schools.

Dunleavy in his social media post said the package "doesn't support the (Alaska) Reads Act." He didn't mention the provisions in the bill for home-schooled students.

The package passed the House last Thursday to scenes of legislators hugging each other and shaking hands on the House floor. Several lawmakers said that if the current education package does not become law, they would work on passing another education bill, grinding work on other issues to a halt.

"I think that the Legislature, writ large, wants to move on to energy issues, the budget, sex trafficking — fill in the blank — and it doesn't want to revisit this issue," said Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage.

Legislators have been trying to have an education bill signed into law by the end of the month so eligible schools can apply for grants to increase their internet download speeds. School districts need to submit applications for those grants by Feb. 28 or they could miss out on substantial funding over the fiscal year that starts in July.