Democratic challenger Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins assailed state Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Haines, and Republican funding of education at a debate Monday in Haines.
State Sen. Albert Kookesh, D-Angoon, also spoke at the debate. Kookesh’s Republican opponent, Bert Stedman of Sitka, did not participate.
Schools aren’t staying even with inflation, but they could for about $40 million more in funding per year, Kreiss-Tomkins said. That compares to $100 million per year the state spends to keep non-school employees even with inflation, $400 million for Gov. Sean Parnell’s performance scholarship program, and a $2 billion proposed tax break for oil companies, he said.
“The quantities of money we’re talking about to really help schools out… we’re not talking about throwing the whole state budget at it,” Kreiss-Tomkins said. “The state House and the House Finance Committee have been a major obstacle to more money making it to schools.”
Thomas, who co-chairs the House committee that oversees the state’s operating budget, said funding K-12 education is already 24 percent of the state’s general fund spending. He said the state’s base student allocation ($5,600 per student) has increased $1,511 since he’s been in office. “Anybody who says education is not a priority for the state is wrong.”’
Thomas said he supported increased funding of early childhood education efforts. “To increase graduation rates, start early. Start them young.”
Thomas said helping schools wasn’t just a matter of increasing the state’s base student allocation. Schools are seeking to make up for losses in enrollment by increasing the allocation, he said.
“If you want to increase education, get kids back in school and you get your money back,” Thomas said.
Kreiss-Tompkins said the allocation is how schools are funded and that “flat-funding” in recent years was hurting schools. “We could try to import truckloads of kids and more kids equal more money… but proportionately, per student, there’s not enough money to go around.”
Thomas characterized school funding as part of a balancing act by the Legislature. “Being co-chair of Finance in the legislature is a big responsibility. We have lots to balance. There’s a lot of give and take every day. Somebody’s wanting something every day. You find that balance.”
Kreiss-Tomkins and Kookesh were critical of Parnell’s scholarship program, on the grounds that required classes aren’t offered in smaller, rural schools. “I don’t have anything against children receiving scholarships. I just want the children I represent to have an opportunity to get those scholarships,” Kookesh said.
Thomas said he liked the scholarship program “for now,” as it included a waiver program for rural districts. Kookesh said the waiver was an allowance for rural students to take two additional years to qualify for the program, which he said was a “stigma.”
Thomas, Kookesh and Kreiss-Tomkins all voiced support for state funding of pre-kindergarten education. Kookesh said the state should fund Head Start programs. Thomas cited his support for Parents as Teachers programs in rural villages and said getting students reading early might improve performance numbers.
Thomas said there was a 68 percent graduation rate statewide and a 20 percent dropout rate and that the state ranked near the bottom nationwide in fourth-grade reading.
Kreiss-Tomkins said tying increases in funding to improvements in the graduation rates was akin to saying “the beatings will stop when morale improves.”
Kookesh said he has supported every initiative in the Legislature to increase education funding and reiterated previous statements in support of an endowment to fund education in Alaska. He said the Legislature needed to “inflation-proof” the base student allocation.
Kookesh said in addition to the base allocation, the state should create “separate funding streams” to pay for technology improvements and school energy costs.