In an unexpected development, Alaska’s Education Commissioner, Deena Bishop, has reversed her previous stance advocating for an increase in the Base Student Allocation (BSA), the formula determining state funding for public schools in Alaska. Formerly the superintendent of Anchorage School District, Bishop had been a vocal supporter of augmenting the BSA to keep pace with inflation. However, her recent change aligns with Governor Mike Dunleavy’s budget proposal, maintaining the BSA at its 2017 level.
The Need for Budget Prioritization
Deena Bishop, who served as superintendent for six years and assumed her role as the state’s education commissioner in August, cited the financial constraints faced by the state as a decisive factor. In a recent interview, she emphasized the need for budget prioritization, noting that increasing one area of the budget comes at the opportunity cost of others. Governor Dunleavy, a former educator turned politician, has consistently advocated for budget cuts in education, recently vetoing over $87 million in education funding approved by the Legislature.
This change in stance places Deena Bishop at odds with her successor, Anchorage Superintendent Jharrett Bryantt, as well as organizations representing the state’s school boards, administrators, and teachers. All these entities have identified increasing the BSA as their top legislative priority for the upcoming session starting in January. They argue that without a boost to the formula, achieving education priorities, such as improving reading scores, would become more challenging.
Targeted Funding for Teacher Pay Raises and Additional Reading Tutors
Despite her opposition to a BSA increase, Bishop expressed support for more targeted funding, particularly for initiatives like teacher pay raises and additional reading tutors. She contends that a shift toward specific funding areas would address critical needs without necessitating a blanket increase in the BSA, which covers a wide array of expenses, including teacher salaries and building maintenance.
In response to ongoing budget challenges, Deena Bishop suggested districts consider closing underutilized buildings due to declining student enrollment. While acknowledging the costs associated with school closures, she stressed the need to prioritize spending on student learning rather than facility upkeep. This proposal differs from the stance of Anchorage School District officials, who indicated that school closures may not lead to significant financial savings and are driven more by declining enrollment than budget constraints.
Ongoing Debates over Funding Priorities
Deena Bishop presented the Dunleavy administration’s education-related priorities at an Anchorage Rotary Club event, including improving reading performance, advancing policies for tribal-run schools, enhancing teacher retention and recruitment, and promoting career and technical education options. Notably, the priorities also include supporting a “parental rights” bill proposed by Governor Dunleavy, aiming to limit LGBTQ+-related instruction in Alaska schools—a proposal met with broad opposition in the previous legislative session.
The evolving dynamics in Alaska’s education landscape highlight the ongoing debates over funding priorities and underscore the challenges of balancing diverse needs within constrained budgets. As the state approaches the upcoming legislative session, the discussion around education funding is expected to take center stage, determining the trajectory for Alaska’s schools in the foreseeable future.