House Republicans' education bill rejected as lawmakers continue work toward bipartisan deal

Feb. 22—JUNEAU — The Alaska House is striving for a bipartisan education deal after a sweeping Republican-backed package failed to garner enough votes to be debated on the floor.

Twenty House Republicans on Wednesday voted in favor of hearing the education bill, which had several key provisions proposed by GOP Gov. Mike Dunleavy. Twenty other representatives voted against debating the proposal.

Wednesday's vote was identical to Monday's vote tally for the same procedural motion. But the second failed vote meant all the GOP-backed provisions in the bill were effectively removed, including plans for more charter schools; $40 million in extra funding for homeschooled students; and $58 million in teacher bonuses. Those provisions could be added back into the final House education package through amendments.

Over the two days between the two failed procedural votes, legislators held multiple closed-door meetings to craft a deal.

"We've taken a couple of days to have some conversations to try to come together with some kind of a bipartisan agreement. Those have not come to fruition yet," said House Speaker Cathy Tilton, a Wasilla Republican, after a marathon day on the House floor that ended just before 10:30 p.m.

"We don't have a deal at this time, but obviously we still have an opportunity to keep working towards the solution," said Anchorage independent Rep. Calvin Schrage, the House minority leader, late Wednesday evening.

The now-rejected Republican education package came with a $300 boost to the Base Student Allocation — the state's per-student funding formula — at a cost of $77 million per year. Education advocates have said a school funding boost five times that size is needed after six years of virtually flat school funding and high inflation.

A second procedural vote on Wednesday to debate an earlier version of the education package failed, which meant the bill reverted to how it looked when it left the Senate: a one-page measure to allow eligible schools across Alaska to apply for grants to increase their internet download speeds.

Lawmakers have been racing to pass an education package with those internet provisions by the end of the month. School districts need to submit applications for broadband grants by Feb. 28 or they could miss out on substantial funding over the fiscal year that starts in July.

Members of the House minority had objected to provisions they said were unvetted in the Republican package added last month by a legislative committee that only typically schedules when bills are heard by the full House.

Anchorage Republican Rep. Craig Johnson, co-chair of the House Rules Committee, said after the second failed vote Wednesday that he was not disappointed that the GOP-backed bill had not advanced to floor debates and it was all part of the process.

Amendment debates to the one-page broadband bill started after 5 p.m. Wednesday.

A succession of amendments was introduced by minority members to substantially increase the BSA, but all were rejected by one-vote margins. Wasilla Republican Rep. David Eastman was the swing vote each time, joining 20 members of the GOP-led majority to vote down each proposal.

Schrage said he was not surprised by Wednesday's vote tallies. He said it was accurate to say the House was effectively in a holding pattern while discussions continued behind closed doors to forge a deal.

Democrats and independents from the minority have favored a BSA boost of at least $680 at a cost of $175 million per year. They spoke on the House floor about the potential impacts of not approving a substantial school funding increase this year. Schools are slated for closure in Juneau and Fairbanks; class sizes are set to increase; popular school programs would be cut; and teacher positions would be eliminated, lawmakers said.

Rep. Zack Fields, D-Anchorage, said a $680 BSA boost would still equate to an 11% cut for Anchorage School District after years of inflation. He described a funding increase of that size as "a tourniquet" that would just stop an "absolute apocalypse" for schools in Anchorage this year.

Rep. CJ McCormick, a Bethel Democrat, was the only majority member to speak on the floor in support of increasing school funding, but said a $680 BSA boost was still "woefully inadequate."

Tilton said debates on the one-page broadband bill started Wednesday because amendments were ready. "It was time to get the process moving" after the GOP-backed education package had stalled for three weeks, she said.

Tilton said she hoped the House would hear all the remaining amendments on Thursday with a goal to pass the education package to the Senate on Friday.