Sometimes it takes an election season to get politicians focused on the right priorities. With a competitive governor's race coming up this fall, Sean Parnell finally is talking about issues Democrats have been focused on for a long time: raising education funding and eliminating bureaucratic red tape. The governor also endorsed a long-standing Democratic priority: paying down our pension obligations for public employees.
I frequently hear concerns that politics is too partisan, and the two parties don't work together enough. That's true. But the good news is that we now have a real dialogue about education policy, since Gov. Parnell has attempted to co-opt Democratic education policies.
For the last four years, Gov. Parnell has frozen classroom education funding. Taking inflation into account, this represents a 7 percent cut in funding. As a result, schools in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau, the Kenai Peninsula and perhaps the Mat-Su will lay off hundreds of teachers and counselors. We have to reverse these education funding cuts, which is why Democrats like Berta Gardner and Les Gara have pushed for indexing classroom education funding to inflation.
After four long years, the governor finally conceded that classroom education funding should be raised ... but the governor's proposal doesn't even catch up with inflation. As the Daily News editorial board noted, the governor's proposal won't stop teacher layoffs.
While I applaud the governor's belated recognition that classroom funding needs to be increased, we must keep up the pressure to ensure that funding increases are meaningful and reverse recent cuts. Lip service won't stop teacher layoffs. We need to recover all the education funding that was lost to inflation over the last four years.
For years, Democratic elected officials have said we need to eliminate the high school exit exam. Much like the misguided "No Child Left Behind" federal mandate, high school exit exams represent ineffective, wasteful regulations.
We can't afford to waste students' or teachers' time with tests that don't actually measure student achievement. Instead, teachers and students should focus on the kind of education that will equip Alaskans to compete in a competitive global marketplace. For these reasons, I appreciate the governor getting behind Democrats' proposal to end high school exit exams.
Democrats also have been advocating for years to pay down the state government's pension obligations. Finally, this year the governor agreed with that proposal. Paying down pension debt is smart because it reduces state government interest payments, which means we're being more responsible fiscal managers.
After Gov. Parnell's "Oil Giveaway," the state faces $3 billion in deficits over the next 18 months. These deficits make it even more important to save money where we can, including by paying down pension obligations to save money on interest.
Success on these fronts is vital for our economic future. Recently, organizations like the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce and Anchorage Economic Development Commission have called for strengthening our public education system. Individual businessmen have published op-eds in our local papers supporting an increase in classroom education funding. All these business groups and individuals make the same crucial point: A strong education system is vital for Alaska's economic future.
First, businesses demand a well trained workforce. Second, highly skilled workers want to live in a community where their children can attend good schools. Communities with strong public education systems attract big businesses and high-wage jobs. Let's attract those good jobs and big businesses to Alaska.
Of course, you won't hear Gov. Parnell give Democrats credit for pro-education, pro-economic growth policies, and I'm OK with that. What's important is doing the right thing for Alaska, regardless of who gets credit. As the legislative session in Juneau proceeds, Democrats are focused on making sure Gov. Parnell's education funding proposal matches his rhetoric. We can't afford more teacher layoffs, because a strong education system is essential for Alaska's economic future.
Mike Wenstrup is chairman of the Alaska Democratic Party.