Education commissioner disputes federal government’s claim that Alaska didn’t fund schools equitably during the pandemic

A group of first grade students play on the playground at Sayéik Gastineau Community School on Jan. 14, 2021, in Juneau, Alaska. (Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

State education officials continue to dispute the federal government’s claim that Alaska didn’t fund schools equitably during the pandemic.

In December, federal education officials said Alaska failed to meet conditions attached to COVID relief funding for schools. The rule, called “maintenance of equity,” said states couldn’t disproportionately reduce state funding to its highest need districts when it gave out pandemic relief.

The U.S. Department of Education says Alaska did that in four school districts: the Juneau School District, Anchorage School District, Fairbanks North Star Borough School District and Kenai Peninsula Borough School District.

But during a press call on Friday, Alaska Department of Education and Early Development Commissioner Deena Bishop said Alaska followed its funding formula as usual during the pandemic.

“This equalized funding approach did not change during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Bishop said. “Alaska did not reduce per-pupil spending on education in any of our school districts in order to take advantage of federal funds.”

Bishop said districts lost students during those years. Since state funding is based on enrollment in a district, a drop in enrollment means a drop in state funding.

“This is not a reduction or cut, it’s simply how the state formula works,” Bishop said.

Alaska’s school funding formula starts with a base amount per student — called the base student allocation — and then makes adjustments for things like school size, the number of students with intensive special needs and other factors specific to each district. The goal is to recognize the wide range of students’ needs across the state and provide the funding to meet them.

The state also has a provision called “hold harmless,” which helps districts who’ve lost students by gradually reducing the amount of state funding they receive over the course of three years instead of immediately.

All those factors mean state funding varies from year to year. During the pandemic, as some students dropped out of brick and mortar schools and enrolled in homeschool programs, the amount of funding they generated for districts changed.

Bishop stressed that the maintenance of equity requirement was the first of its kind.

“For states with an equalized per-pupil funding formula like ours, there was no way to know how to comply, if simply maintaining your funding and distribution in the same historical manner was insufficient,” she said.

And she said the state’s passage of the disparity test — a separate federal rule that allows the state to count some federal aid as state education funding — shows that the state fairly funds all districts.

Last week, federal policy advisor Austin Reid told the Alaska Senate Education Committee that more than 40 states were initially deemed out of compliance with the maintenance of equity requirements. 

“To date, I’m aware of at least seven states that have made supplemental appropriations to demonstrate compliance for fiscal year 2022, with payments ranging from several hundred thousands of dollars, up to nearly $100 million,” he said.

Last month, the Department of Education said Alaska could resolve its non-compliance by sending nearly $30 million to the four school districts. The department did not respond to a request for comment on Bishop’s claim that Alaska did fund schools equitably by following the formula.

Bishop said it’s too early to say whether supplemental payments are the only solution. She said she hoped to meet with federal education officials sometime this week.

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