Senate education plan cuts deep into university budget, eliminates Alaska Performance Scholarship

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The Alaska Senate recently announced a series of bills that would cut tremendously into the University of Alaska’s budget and eliminate a statewide scholarship program. The money that funds the Alaska Performance Scholarship would go to K-12 education throughout the state.

The Senate introduced a new education plan, stating that there is an “enormous achievement gap for many Alaskan students and outcomes are not where they should be for students to be ready for life after high school.”

The goal of the proposed bills is to prioritize resources for Alaskan students in the 21st century.

The Senate Finance Committee created an updated FY18 operating budget that would cut $22 million from the university, a $5.7 million addition to the already proposed $16.3 million. The UA budget cuts have previously resulted in the loss of copious faculty, staff and programs — while cutting scholarship opportunities may add a loss of prospective students.

University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen referred to the legislative cuts as “devastating.”

Bills proposed by the Senate to alter state education include SB 96, 102, 103 and 104.

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“The overall purpose of SB 96 is to provide the school districts with tools through offering grants that school districts can use. The bill will also create the virtual education consortium, which will allow school districts to offer classes virtually to students in other districts,” Joshua Banks, Senate Education Committee aid, said.

SB 102 regards funding for internet services for school districts, which would increase internet access and speeds in the state and in the rural areas of Alaska. SB 104 highlights the Board of Education and improvement of school curriculum.

The bill that caused the most controversy was SB 103, which involves eliminating the Alaska Performance Scholarship and Alaska Education Grant, and instead creates “innovation grants” within Alaska school districts. If enacted, the APS and AEG would be cut by the 2020-2021 academic year.

Students that are eligible for the APS after high school could receive up to $4,755 per year for up to four years to study at a participating in-state institution. More than 5,200 Alaskan high school graduates have benefited from the APS, according to Alaska Commission on Postsecondary Education.

Since created in 2011, the APS has increased enrollment at the University of Alaska, and has encouraged many students to pursue higher education in-state. The APS costed the state about $11 million last year and helped a little over 3,400 students pay for school. Cutting the scholarship program could cost the UA system up to $10 million each year.

Out of the APS recipients that graduated in the 2015 academic year, 750 students earned a bachelor’s degree or higher, 150 earned an associate’s degree and 50 received certificates.

Alec Burris, recipient of the APS, thinks that SB 103 sends the wrong message to prospective college students in Alaska.

“I think that the Alaska Performance Scholarship is particularly important in our state because it allows students in financial need to attend college. In a state like Alaska, where a lot of our population is rural, it’s really important that they have those opportunities to gain the education they deserve,” Burris said. “This is just a good tool for students to attend school and get the education that they need.”

Despite the million of dollars that the state would save by eliminating these popular scholarships, many students may be encouraged to pursue their higher education out of state.

Ashleigh Goplen, junior health science major at UAA and APS recipient, said that the Alaska Performance Scholarship is the only thing that has kept her in Alaska.

“I think [the APS] is important because it keeps the academically strong students, who have options to go to other schools, in state, and then hopefully keeps them in state in the future for whatever career they transition into. It’s important for future students because it’s a huge motivator to do well in high school.” Goplen said.

The Alaska Education Grant requires less state funding than the APS but provides many students with the opportunity to further their education. The AEG provides need-based financial assistance to Alaska students, typically awarding grants of $500 to $4,000 per academic year.

If enacted into law, the high school graduating class of 2017 will be the last to be eligible for the scholarship and grant. The Higher Education Fund will be renamed “The Alaskan Innovation Education Grant Fund.”

The purpose of the new legislation is to provide the Department of Education and Early Development and school districts with grants to create academically innovative ways to improve education in the state.

These grants must first be approved by the Commissioner of Education and submitted to the legislature for state funding before the education budget is altered.