David Boyle: Alaska responds to federal overreach in education K-12 funding


Alaska’s Education Commissioner Deena Bishop has strongly pushed back against the U.S. Department of Education’s attempt to manage the state’s K-12 education funding through federal “guidance.”

During the Covid pandemic, the Congress appropriated funds through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to help states fund their K-12 education systems, which could suffer from reduced state revenues.

For the first time, the federal government implemented a “Maintenance of Equity” clause to ensure that states did not reduce their K-12 funding and use the ARPA funds for other needs.

Now, the U.S. Department of Education is using its “4,000 mile screwdriver” to tighten the hold on Alaska’s K-12 funding formula.

The U.S. Department of Education implemented the Maintenance of Equity clause through “guidance”, not the usual mandatory regulations. 

Basically, if a state must cut education funding, it must not cut a disproportionate share from schools with a high population of low-income students and high need students.

It seems that the federal bureaucrats are having a difficult time understanding Alaska’s unique K-12 funding formula.  It is unique among the other states because it has an extra funding factor for the remote rural schools due to the very high cost of providing education.

Understandably, it is difficult for a Washington, D.C. official to understand the remoteness of some of Alaska’s schools and its complex K-12 funding formula.

Commissioner Bishop pointed out that our education funding is constitutionally based and equalizes funding among rural and urban school districts. She also says that we did not reduce per pupil state spending to take advantage of federal funds—what the Maintenance of Equity guidance prohibited.

Alaska has a “hold harmless” factor in its K-12 funding formula.  If a district loses more than 5% of its students in a particular year, then it still receives 75% of those students’ funding. This is to permit a “soft landing” to a district’s finances.

This hold harmless factor came into play during the pandemic.

During the pandemic, many schools closed and went to remote student learning. Because of this, some students left the brick-and-mortar schools and enrolled in Alaska’s correspondence schools. The brick-and-mortar schools in Kenai, Anchorage, Juneau, and Fairbanks districts lost students and lost the per student funding as well.  This is perhaps why the federal bureaucrats believe these districts were short-changed and require about $30 million more from the State.

On the other hand, the MatSu School District remained open during the pandemic and gained students. It apparently was not short-changed.

Commissioner Bishop states in her letter, “For fiscal years 2022 and 2023, USDOE determined that Alaska passed the disparity test and has an equalized program of education funding.”  So, why is the federal agency now saying that Alaska is not equitably distributing its ARPA funds?

The U.S. Department of Guidance put out ARPA guidance to the states in 2021, 2022, and again in 2033. It was very difficult for states to adhere to the continually changing guidance.  

For Alaska, the amount of funding owed to school districts was a moving target. In December of 2023 the USDOE said the state owed the Kenai, Juneau, Anchorage, and Fairbanks school districts nearly $8 million. In March 2024 the number was raised to nearly $30 million. 

It’s unclear from where the increase came. 

This eventually comes down to a question of state sovereignty. The state has the plenary power to establish and fund a K-12 education system. The federal government has no role in a state’s funding of K-12 education.

Austin Reid, National Conference of State Legislatures, briefed this issue to the Senate Education Committee on April 3, 2024.  He noted that, “To my knowledge, the Maintenance of Equity provision is the first time the federal government has been given a direct interest in state education finance decisions.”

This overreach by the federal government is very troubling, especially when it comes to funding the education of Alaska’s children. 

How far down will the federal government reach its tentacles into Alaska’s K12 funding?

Will the federal government eventually propose a universal K12 funding formula for all states?

Will other states also be subjected to this overreach?

One reporter asked, “When will the Department of Education and Early Development ask the legislature to fund the extra $30 million?”  He didn’t seem to understand the concept of federal overreach interference in Alaska’s K-12 system.

As a compromise, the commissioner wants the USDOE to remove the hold harmless and pupil transportation factors from the Maintenance of Equity calculations. She says that this would lower the amount and resolve the problem.

Commissioner Bishop wants both parties to meet to discuss the issue so it can be resolved quickly.

She is more than willing to resolve this issue, while maintaining Alaska’s sovereignty in K-12 education.

David Boyle is Must Read Alaska’s education writer.

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