Alaska’s Democratic-controlled Senate majority caucus is attempting to justify deep cuts to this year’s Permanent Fund Dividend checks in order to pump an extra $250 million dollars into public education, along with paying down massive amounts of government debt.

During a Feb. 1 press conference, members of the Senate Majority discussed Senate Bill 52, which would increase the Base Student Allocation (BSA) by $1,000. The BSA, which is the amount of money the state sets aside annually for each student, is currently $5,960. Adding another $1,000 would mean taking funds from other areas, namely the individual PFD checks that go to Alaskan residents.

Sen. Loki Tobin (D-Anchorage), who chairs the Senate Education Committee, claimed the proposed massive increase in education spending represents a “bold approach” to addressing educational concerns.

Sen. Bert Stedman (R-Sitka) noted, however, that increasing the BSA won’t come without a price.

“If this bill is $250 million, we could handle it,” he said, “if we had a $1,300 dividend,  we could pay for the education increase and we could pay for the deficit and we could pay off all the municipal debt for the entire state for municipalities.”

But whittling the PFD down to $1,300 would represent a $2,500 cut. If Alaskans were paid a full statutory PFD, each check would be roughly $3,800 per resident. That’s a $10,000 reduction for a household of four.

“Somethings go to give,” Stedman said. “So, we’re going to have to have those conversations.”

Clearly, however, Stedman was enthusiastic about the prospects of reducing the PFD to pay for government programs and debt reduction.

“It’s staggering the impact here, when you can pay off all of the virtually all of the municipal bond dept for the entire state, and fill the deficit up and fix the education funding requirement,” he said.

Senate Majority Leader Gary Stevens added that he’s heard from public educators and administrators about what they describe as a crisis in education funding. This week the Alaska Association of School Boards is organizing a lobbying effort on the part of public education activists.

“It truly is a crisis, I think,” Stevens said, adding that Sen. Tobin’s job is to “face the ciris and be bold – figure out where do we go.”

Apart from increasing the BSA, Tobin said the Senate is also looking into additional education funding for transportation, maintenance, constructions and other various projects.

Stedman ended the press conference by reiterating that all the additional education funding would mean paying out a smaller PFD this fall.

“But we’re going to have to make a choice,” he said. “Do we want to teach our kids to cash checks or do we want to teach them to read and write and do arithmetic? … And that will be the fundamentals of the debate, but something’s got to give.”

Whether a sharp increase in government spending on schools will actually translate into better education is a highly contested matter.

According to the Alaska Policy Forum, Alaska’s total per pupil revenue has grown by 32% per pupil over the past two decades – from $15,000 in 2002 to $20,000 in 2020. That includes all federal, state and local funding sources, not just the BSA.

Overall, Alaska exceeds the national average in per pupil spending by 23%, APF notes.

“Increasing spending is often seen as the cure-all for a lackluster education system, no matter which state is examined,” the APF report explained. “But higher spending does not necessarily correlate with better outcomes. Alaska had the sixth highest per-pupil expenditures in 2018-2019, yet National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores in 2019 were the fifth lowest nationwide in fourth-grade mathematics, and dead last in fourth-grade reading.”

APF, along with many other educational reform groups, note that competition is the best way to improve schools. This includes school vouchers, which allow families to choose the best educational options for their children, whether that be public, private or homeschooling.


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Alaska’s Senate majority considers slashing PFD to add $250M to public education

Joel Davidson
Joel is Editor-in-Chief of the Alaska Watchman. Joel is an award winning journalist and has been reporting for over 24 years, He is a proud father of 8 children, and lives in Palmer, Alaska.