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Alaska governor pitches teacher bonuses as debate over education funding dominates session

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy urged lawmakers late Tuesday to pass his pilot program that would pay teachers bonuses of up to $15,000 a year, pitching it as an investment in the classroom, even as education leaders say a more significant investment in the state’s K-12 public school system is needed.

The Republican, in his State of the State speech, also discussed the need for greater opportunity in Alaska, an oil-dependent state experiencing a long-standing trend of more people leaving than moving to it, and efforts to make Alaska more attractive for businesses and families.

But education has been a dominant topic of the legislative session that began about two weeks ago, with supporters of a large increase in state aid rallying on the steps of the Capitol Monday. Dunleavy’s speech was originally scheduled for Monday but high winds in Juneau disrupted flights carrying guests and Cabinet members, delaying the speech until Tuesday.

School leaders are seeking a $1,413 increase in the current $5,960 per-student funding allotment that districts receive, saying that is needed to offset years of inflation — and warning of additional cuts to programs and positions without a significant boost. Such an increase would boost state funding by about $360 million. But even lawmakers sympathetic to their pleas question if that amount is politically realistic in a state that has struggled with recurring budget deficits and relied heavily on revenue from oil and earnings from its oil-wealth nest-egg fund.

Dunleavy, a former teacher who vetoed half of the $175 million in one-time additional school funding passed by lawmakers last year, did not include an increase in the allotment in his latest budget proposal and said he won’t support legislation that merely increases it.

He hasn’t said publicly what level of new funding he might support but is pushing a broader approach that includes paying bonuses of between $5,000 and $15,000 to classroom teachers as a way to retain them and promoting charter schools after a report gave Alaska charters high marks nationally. Under the proposed three-year incentive program, bonuses would range from $5,000 for teachers in more urban settings to $15,000 for those in more rural areas.

House Republican leaders have put forward a package including charter provisions and teacher bonuses, plus a $300 boost in the per-student allotment. But that funding increase is a nonstarter for more moderate lawmakers.

Dunleavy, in his speech, said that to lead, “we must break the cycle of just doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

“That means putting a focus on outcomes such as reading. It means investing in our classroom teachers rather than only a formula,” he said.

State education commissioner Deena Bishop, whose appointment was backed by Dunleavy, in a recent opinion piece said funding through the per-student allocation “does not ensure that money gets directly into the classroom to support better academic achievement.” Bishop argued for targeted investments, such as funding to implement a reading initiative that was supported by Dunleavy and programs connecting students to career interests.

In a statement, Senate President Gary Stevens, a Republican who leads a bipartisan majority, said: “While there may be debates on how to address public education, balance the state budget and recruit and retain workforces in our communities, we intend to work with the governor to find common ground on these issues facing Alaskans.”

Dunleavy, who was re-elected to a second term in 2022, also used his speech to talk about the importance of food security, given the state’s reliance on products being shipped in; efforts to improve public safety; and energy-related initiatives, including a proposal to upgrade transmission lines in the state’s most populous region.

Becky Bohrer, The Associated Press


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