Our View: Lawmakers should raise funding for schools - without governor's conditions

January 23, 2014 

School cuts

Keep teachers on the job -- without governor's conditions

A wise accountant will be the first to tell you that life is not just an accounting exercise.

Gov. Sean Parnell and Alaska lawmakers should take that maxim to heart when they look at the state's education budget this session -- one the governor has declared the education session.

Four years of flat funding along with rising costs for retirement and health benefits have strapped school districts around the state.

Now the Anchorage School District is looking at $23 million in cuts, a 6 percent reduction in teachers, an extra class period every day, larger classes, fewer materials, increased fees and decreased opportunities.

You don't enhance education by making it harder to deliver.

In his state of the state speech Wednesday, Parnell says he's willing to raise the base student allocation -- but only if lawmakers put a constitutional amendment on the ballot to allow public money for private schools and vote to expand charter schools.

Support for Alaska's public schools can't depend on a deal for an agenda that could hurt public schools. Lawmakers and the governor should argue that agenda separately. The prospect of losing teachers across the state isn't a bargaining chip; it's a challenge the state has a constitutional obligation to meet.

The state's failure to meet that obligation has left the Anchorage district few options. The board could approve cutting whole programs but then the loss is even greater for students. The district could slash extracurriculars. That would please those who think everything beyond the three Rs plus tech and engineering is fluff. But experienced educators and parents know better.

So the solution, given the hand the district has been dealt, is to lay off teachers and ask those who remain to do more.

Many of those teachers are angry about it but here's the thing -- most of them will do more with less and take the stress, or at least try.

They shouldn't have to.

Certainly, the district and all of its employees have to do their part to make every dollar count. We need greater efficiencies and some sacrifice, and we've had some. The district has been cutting administrative and staff positions for the last several years. The contract teachers ratified last fall was an example of compromise that gave teachers a modest raise and allowed the district to save some money on health care costs. Even then, board member Natasha Von Imhof and others warned that without an increase in the state's base student funding allocation, Anchorage schools would struggle to cover the contract.

The state is facing a deficit of $1 billion to $2 billion this year, with the prospect of more deficits to come. But public education is a fundamental investment to keep informed, capable citizens. That's vital to our health, safety and prosperity. Shortchange education, and we'll pay far more than we gain.

Those with an eye to the deficits will ask where the money for teachers will come from. We can slash some of the more dubious capital projects -- the Knik Arm bridge comes to mind -- to keep teaching staffs at current levels.

Continued flat funding of education -- or holding an increase hostage to the governor's agenda -- takes us back to the '90s, when we let the university system languish, fought urban-rural battles over who gets how much for K-12 and generally seemed bent on lowering the state IQ.

Teachers are the heart of our schools. We demand their best. Let's give them a fair chance to keep giving it -- for the sake of all of our students.

BOTTOM LINE: Teacher layoffs don't help Alaska public schools.

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