Alaska governor threatens to veto education package that he says doesn’t go far enough

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — Alaska Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy has threatened to veto an education package overwhelmingly passed by lawmakers after a bruising debate, saying it lacks provisions he favors, including a pilot program offering annual bonuses of up to $15,000 as a way to attract and keep teachers.

Dunleavy, a former educator, said this week that there is still time for lawmakers to address issues like the proposed bonuses and changes to the application process for charter schools aimed at promoting such schools. The governor has 15 days, excluding Sundays, to act on a bill sent to him if the Legislature is in session.

He can sign the bill, veto it or let it become law without his signature. A decision is expected by March 14.

Some key lawmakers say the package was a compromise and question whether the state can afford the bonuses — or even if they’d work.

Debate over education funding has dominated this legislative session. The House last week voted 38-2 to support a compromise package that included a $175-million increase in aid to districts through a school funding formula; a state education department position dedicated to supporting charter schools; additional funding for K-3 students who need reading help; and language encouraging districts to use some of the funding for teacher salaries and retention bonuses. The vote followed a period of intense debate that also showed divisions within the Republican-led majority.

The Senate, led by a bipartisan coalition, agreed 18-1 on Monday to support the package, sending it to Dunleavy.

The compromise stemmed from negotiations after the House failed to support bringing up for debate a version of the bill that advanced from the House Rules Committee. That version included Dunleavy’s bonus plan, charter provisions and a roughly $80 million increase in state aid through the formula.

After the bill passed the House, Republican Speaker Cathy Tilton said that while the compromise “fell short” of the earlier proposal, “I’d still call it a ‘qualified’ success.”

School officials had sought a roughly $360 million increase in funding, citing the impact of inflation and high energy and insurance costs. But the state, which relies heavily on oil and earnings from Alaska’s nest-egg oil-wealth fund, has struggled with deficits over the last decade, and some lawmakers questioned whether that amount was realistic.

The Legislature approved a one-time, $175 million boost last year, but Dunleavy vetoed half that. Lawmakers did not have enough votes for an override.

Dunleavy has cast the bonuses and support of charter schools as a way of doing things differently. He has questioned whether simply increasing funding to districts will improve student performance.

He has proposed paying teachers bonuses of $5,000 to $15,000 a year over three years, with the highest amount for those in the most remote areas. Estimates suggest the program could cost about $55 million a year.

The language in the education package encouraging districts to use some of the funds for bonuses “does not ensure the desired ends are realized,” Dunleavy spokesperson Grant Robinson said by email Thursday.

Republican Senate President Gary Stevens told reporters this week that there is a limit to what the state can afford. A revised revenue forecast is expected by mid-March, and lawmakers haven’t even begun publicly debating how big this year’s dividend payout to residents from oil-wealth fund earnings should be — typically one of the most contentious debates of the session.

Sen. Bill Wielechowski, an Anchorage Democrat, raised questions about how well bonuses might work. He said he thinks there’s a “fair expectation” that teachers from overseas or the Lower 48 would leave after the three years is up.

He said the level of support for the compromise bill was “pretty unheard of these days” for a controversial measure.

Tom Klaameyer, president of NEA-Alaska, a teachers’ union, said if Dunleavy vetoes the education package, “then our schools remain in crisis.”

The measure “was simply a life preserver that was being thrown or could have been thrown to schools to stem the crisis,” he said.

He added: “We’re saying, throw the life preserver.”


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