State officials peddle false statistics on state education funding

On Feb. 18, temporary budget director Donna Arduin told legislators that only about half of what the state provides for education ends up in the classroom, offering that as ammunition to support the biggest cut in school funding in Alaska history.

The claim fits the unfortunate pattern of the Dunleavy administration of misusing statistics to promote its radical attack on K-12 public schools and the University of Alaska.

“The data that we have shows that only 54 percent of the dollars going to the district are spent for instructional,” Arduin told the Senate Finance Committee.

Education commissioner Michael Johnson, seated next to her, failed to speak up to correct the false claim.

“We’re extremely open, the commissioner would be very open to proposals that you may have to mitigate some of those expenditures so that more money can go to the classroom,” said Arduin.

The Dunleavy administration is proposing a school funding level that is $75 million lower than it was a decade ago and trying to make the case that schools are top-heavy with administration.

On the public radio program “Talk of Alaska” last week, Revenue Commissioner Bruce Tangeman said he doesn’t have kids and looks at education “from a disconnected point of view,” but concludes we “spend the most and we get some of the worst results.”

“I don’t know what the solution is to that, but apparently throwing more money after it hasn’t helped solve that problem,” he said.

That Tangeman refers to an essential state function as “throwing more money” speaks to how disconnected he is from Alaska schools. The right-wing talking point that Alaska schools are failing ignores the complexity of the problem and the reality that many students succeed when they have the right home and family environment.

“A lot of folks will look at the fact that 52 percent of the revenue for education is going to the classroom, which means 48 percent is not. So maybe that’s part of the restructuring that also needs to take place. I know we hear and we’re seeing it down here in Juneau, X number of teachers will be cut and that’s a horrible discussion to have, but we never hear about how many of the administrative side will be cut,” he said.

“I know 52 percent, we’re in last place when it comes to that, the amount of funds that are actually going into the classroom. So again, when you mention restructuring, maybe we end up at the exact same dollar amount, but that number changes significantly and goes to 75 percent making its way into the classroom.”

According to the Alaska Council of School Administrators, the temporary budget director and the revenue commissioner are wrong in claiming that 54 percent or 52 percent of funds go toward student instruction.

“This information is not only incorrect, it also implies there is ample room in district budgets to absorb the governor’s proposed 24.3 percent cut. According to our 54 school districts, based on actual spending, the correct figure for student instructional costs is 74.6 percent,” Dr. Lisa Skiles Parady, executive director of the school administrators group, wrote to state lawmakers.

The group called on the temporary budget director and the education commissioner to back up its statistical claim, which the state has yet to do.

As a starting point for the so-called “honest budget,” this warrants a failing grade.

Deciding what counts as instructional and what does not is somewhat of a subjective matter. The clearest sign that the Dunleavy administration is excluding services that once were counted as instructional is found in our recent history.

For many years the state had a requirement that at least 70 percent of funds go toward instruction, a requirement that was eliminated by the Legislature three years ago, with the support of then-Sen. Mike Dunleavy.

The state’s largest school districts, responsible for most Alaska students, exceeded that 70 percent target, but small rural districts found it impossible to get to that level because of high operation and maintenance costs. The small districts had to ask for annual waivers to show why they couldn’t get to 70 percent.

Most of the districts that did not meet the 70 percent target had operating budgets below $3 million and spent more than 20 percent of their budgets on operations and maintenance.

In a presentation to the House Finance Committee Monday, legislative analysts said that under the approach long used by the state, 76 percent of funding goes to instruction, which includes special education funding, special education support services, support services and school administration. Exclude school administration and 72 percent of funding is for instruction.

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Dermot Cole2 Comments