Win Gruening: Education funding is complicated, political



At a recent Alaska State Senate Education Committee hearing at the Capitol, there seemed to be general agreement that state school funding was lagging behind inflation and that long-term funding solutions should be explored.

Most Alaskans wouldn’t necessarily disagree with that.  If only it was that simple.

The Association of School Boards (ASB), a nonprofit representing 52 of the state’s 54 school districts, testified that massive budget gaps will force school closures, elimination of programs, class sizes to balloon, and exacerbate problems with teacher recruitment and retention.

The problem, says the ASB, is that the Base Student Allocation (BSA), the state’s method of parceling out funding to school districts, hasn’t been significantly increased since 2017,  With inflation, this has caused growing funding gaps. Maybe, but there was little discussion about other long-term underlying problems – poor financial planning, changing demographics, growth of alternative non-academic programs, and a lack of accountability.

The pandemic was also a factor impacting state school budgets.  But, in many cases, it was financially positive.  Over a half-billion dollars was spread across state school districts.  Even though districts were warned to treat payments as a one-time addition to budgets and not use them for permanent program commitments, it was difficult to track and, inevitably, massive shortfalls occurred when the money ran out.

Many school districts have delayed action on, or ignored, changing demographics that have contributed to lower student counts and resulting funding reductions. Fairbanks planned to close three elementary schools and eliminate 121 positions last year, largely because the district has lost 2,000 students. The Anchorage School District recommended closing six elementary schools after continuing to lose students and discovering a $68 million budget shortfall, but then backed off amid public outcries.

State demographers have noted that Alaska’s population has been aging and Anchorage and Fairbanks’ populations have notably shrunk over the past decade.  

The Juneau School District was grappling with a projected $3.2 million deficit this year but seemed puzzled what to do about it even after a school board sponsored economic report in February 2022 projected a decline of almost 1,200 students over the next ten years.  According to the report, “JSD enrollment declined in 14 of the last 17 years; the district now has 20 percent fewer students than in 2004. The enrollment decline has been driven by demographic factors – principally declining births”. 

In December, KTOO reported that, “The Juneau School District has more than a hundred fewer kindergarteners than expected this year, and birth rate data shows the trend is likely to continue.”

The estimated loss of 1,044 Juneau students from 2004-2021 would have accounted for millions of dollars in additional funding with the current state BSA foundation formula. 

School districts can do more to alleviate their budget woes by following through on school consolidations or alternative program reductions. Instead, educators are asking for a staggering $1,000-per-student jump in the BSA to maintain the status quo.  Depending on which projections you want to use, this would increase state funding anywhere from $257 million to more than $500 million after adjustments for student attendance. Currently, the BSA is $5,930 for each enrolled student.

Educators are also asking for a return to a defined-benefit retirement plan for teachers, a plan that could add hundreds of millions of dollars to the state budget. A similar plan was discontinued in 2006 due to fiscal constraints.

Underlying all of these fiscal concerns is the continuing poor academic performance of Alaskan students.  Alaska has placed at or near the bottom in standardized testing for years. We all know there are good teachers and administrators who genuinely care for kids and work hard in our schools.  But the system currently in place doesn’t reward them or allow them to excel.

Over time, reform efforts have seemed to focus more on social problems, more administrators, and experimental programs.  None have significantly increased student achievement. 

If we keep doing things the way they have always been done, we can’t expect anything to change. 

This presents a political problem for the education establishment that is fundamental to their endless demands for more funding. If the current conversation does not include changes to improve student achievement, why should Alaskans continue funding the status quo?

After retiring as the senior vice president in charge of business banking for Key Bank in Alaska, Win Gruening became a regular opinion page columnist for the Juneau Empire. He was born and raised in Juneau and graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1970. He is involved in various local and statewide organizations.

Reasons for ballot rejection: Signatures, postmarks

Win Gruening: Juneau muni elections outcome should give the Assembly pause about new City Hall


  1. Education funding is a Ponzi style scam. Give increasing amounts of money to an industry which is incapable of performing its basic mission. Keep juggling the fraud until it collapses.

    If a for profit business did this they’d be shut down, sued, and probably prosecuted for fraud.

    Public Ed is child abuse. Get your kids out. Yesterday.

    Regarding the old hometown.

    -we are gonna keep losing population until the young leftist stay in town and have babies. Simple math.

    -The Assembly is devoid of a concept of reality. Eventually they will run out of other peoples money.

    -Close JDHS. We have zero need for two high schools. Consolidate in Thunder Mountain complex. Sell the building to a developer to make condos. We need affordable housing far more than a second high school.

      • Silly boy. You are gonna be so much fun.

        It is proven fact the test scores and cognitive ability of children in public education has been falling for several decades. Don’t take my word for it, check the NAEP stats.

        It is also demonstrated repeatedly Anchorage in particular is more concerned, at least publicly, about social issues than quality education.

        It is demonstrated repeatedly Anchorage and Juneau are always demanding more money while the student population AND quality of education decreases.

        Public education is failing and a poor return on investment.

        Since you’re new here, and of questionable intelligence (maybe you are a public school teacher) I’ll cut you a break. Here goes:

        -I have repeatedly and passionately advocated for parental involvement. Meet the teachers, attend the PTA, get involved at your local school, attend school board meetings.

        -More: talk to your kids about school. Make sure homework gets done. Review your kids books to understand what they are and are not learning. If they need tutors, get them tutors. Limit extracurricular activities and focus on learning.

        -Actually advocate for your kids.

        Advocating getting kids out of failing public education and into competent private education is not a reasonable solution. It is THE reasonable solution. If they can’t, advocate for charter schools. Demand public ed money follow the kid, not the district or school.

        I suggest you get some aloe. You haven’t been burned, you’ve been roasted.

        • Your lack of knowledge is only surpassed by your ego. You cherry pick what fits your narrative and refuse to listen to anyone with more experience and first hand knowledge. Conservatives bash public education because you want voucher systems. You think that will magically makes kids smarter.

  2. Alaska’s Education Freedom Report Card: Spending
    Published on January 9, 2023 by Sarah Montalbano

    Alaska spends prodigiously on education. The Heritage Foundation ranks Alaska as the ninth-highest spending state nationwide in the 2018-2019 school year, at $18,615 per pupil after adjusting for Alaska’s cost of living. The U.S. Census Bureau documents an unadjusted per-pupil spending of $18,313 in 2020. While precise figures for per-pupil spending vary — with some estimates up to almost $21,000 — Alaska spends well above the Census Bureau’s U.S. average of $13,494 per pupil. Some rankings place Alaska’s spending as fourth nationwide, behind only New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey.

  3. “We all know there are good teachers and administrators who genuinely care for kids and work hard in our schools.” This is of the very few times this has even been acknowledged in articles on MRAK.
    It would be nice to see all the curmudgeons on this topic put forth a solution to the testing scores of Alaska students. What do you think will change the situation? The assumption I see among most is that more time is spent on social problems than the major academic areas. This could not be further from truth. Speaking from experience in the K-3 classrooms, that is all we do! There is little to no time for art, science, social studies, music, etc. For those that do not believe me I ask, when was the last time you were in a classroom?
    Many of you talk about accountability, and you are right to want it. This is one of a few areas where I will not defend Alaska school districts and the NEA. It is too cumbersome to fire an ineffective teacher and many principals and district administrators will not take it on. The flip side of that is finding people to replace them if they were fired!
    The component that MRAK rarely addresses is what the parent’s role is in all of this. I can speak from experience that children with parents that are engaged in their child’s education will achieve an outcome that meets or exceeds the standards. This observation is with very few exceptions Parents that show up to all the conferences, make sure the child does the homework, puts in time reading with the child, and generally knows what is happening will more often than not see their child do well. Parents that contact the teacher directly and respectfully will any concerns will get more attention devoted to those concerns. It makes an impression on a teacher when a parent is engaged and it is a form of accountability rarely mentioned. For parents that work, you just need to find a way!
    While money by itself does not solve problems, a lack of it surely causes them. Keeping up with inflation is the bare minimum. If you want to the funding to come with accountability, put forth a solution as to how to actually do that. If you think these administrators are so incompetent, explain how you would do it differently.

    • Y’know, Matt, and since you’d asked, I think I might just start with hacking the immense unnecessary fat out of the “education” funding we’re all being scammed to lavishly support with our State funds, I’d create and mandate a core curricula consisting of little more than intensive instruction in the three Rs and STEM courses in English only to prepare students for meaningful private sector careers, and I’d force consolidation of the many far flung inefficient school districts into fewer and actually accountable districts staffed with far fewer, non-unionized employees.

      Anything more that parents and communities might desire for their kids could be funded by local taxes and charitable contributions.

      This is nothing less than obscene and please take your best shot at defending it if you must:


  4. Boo Hoo. Just keep throwing taxpayers’ money at the problem. Teach the children to read, write, and calculate. Administrators are paid to ensure kids are educated with skills to be successful. Are today’s teachers too incompetent in those subject areas to teach them? I would bet on it. Stop shoving sexual perversion, CRT, and bullshit issues down the childrens’ throats and get on with their education to function in a civilized society and be successful. Sad to say the hippies of the 60s are in control. I detest every dime of my taxes that goes to their agenda.

  5. Get rid of issues that do not belong in a classroom. Since when is it the taxpayers’ responsibility to fund the school district to teach kids the intricacies of sexual perversion in all its forms? Teach them reading, writing, math, history, geography. Get the garbage out of the classroom before asking the taxpayers for more money. Are the teachers of today competent to teach the skills kids need to function in a civilized society?

  6. Win, all of this information was well known when Thunder Mountain High was proposed yet true to form in Juneau, somehow, it still got built.

    As far as i am concerned, I’ll not support one thin dime for education in Juneau until one of those high schools is closed

    • As I mentioned earlier, CBJ Assembly and reality are separate concepts.
      It’s past time to close JD and sell it to housing developers.

    • On the face of it, JD is likely the more expensive facility to maintain and operate and also has a far more likely chance of being redeveloped into something else due to its location (city offices?). But I could be easily convinced to close TM instead.

      • Since neither can reasonably handle Juneau’s students you hoping the population drops sufficiently or place some more in correspondence programs? Maybe get them into a penal system to save you a dime Bob?

        • Bill, either facility can easily accommodate all of the districts high school students and in fact JD did so for a number of years when the student census was quite a bit higher than it is now.

  7. Don’t get distracted from the issue here, “failure to perform” does not justify increases in operating costs. If your street doesn’t get cleared of snow, how long do you continue to increase the wage of the plow operator? When you reward incompetence, you only get more incompetence.

  8. Of course education funding’s complicated and political. The words complicated and political mean taxpayers are too dumb to know how these things work, and can’t be allowed near anything complicated and political because they’ll mess it up.
    In other words, taxpayers should just hide until the apex predators, Alaska’s education industry, gobble the meaty parts, maybe leave a few bloody scraps for scavengers to fight over.
    A whole essay and not one word about ordering annual forensic audits of education industry finances and management practices, conducted by an Outside firm which does not otherwise do business with the State, with harsh presumptive penalties for malfeasance, fraud, racketeering, mismanagement, and child predation?
    No, we’ll just pour money over the problem so it magically fixes itself, miraculously disappears like a stain you don’t want your wife to see?
    Surely productive Alaskans can disrupt, defy, and ultimately defeat the apex predators at their own game, chum the political waters, make ’em turn on each other. If dark-money sponsors are influential and resourceful enough to depose a duly elected Anchorage mayor, one would think something similar could –and should– be applied ruthlessly, relentlessly to depose Alaska’s education industry.
    In what universe, Win, is it true that “Most Alaskans wouldn’t necessarily disagree (that state school funding was lagging behind inflation and that long-term funding solutions should be explored.)”? .
    Productive Alaskans should just shut up and jump in line to fork over more of their wealth to the education industry, no?
    Really, Win,”most Alaskans” want the perverted, corrupt, incompetent union-management child groomers, nationally recognized for their overpriced underperformance, to be rewarded with even more money, this time seized through income tax, sales tax, PFD seizures?
    Which is it, Win, complicated, political, or both, that one should expect teachers’ union salaries to be “renegotiated” to assure union members’ take-home pay isn’t impacted by tax increases which stiff the Other Guys?
    From the outside looking in, which is the only perspective allowed voters these days, education funding is arguably complicated and political, like climate change and China flu, only to hide the real plot and players from what taxpayers will undoubtedly do when they become aware of the full truth and depth of the Alaska education industry racket.

  9. Message to the educrats and those in the legislature pushing this:

    Get rid of CRT, equity, gay porn, grooming, and the latest (and greatest) trans panic, and we’ll talk. Otherwise, vouchers are in your very near future. Cheers –

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