Paul Jenkins: SJR 9 would let us start fixing broken educational system

commentFebruary 8, 2014 

As the debate heats up about Senate Joint Resolution 9, the threshold question we should be asking is this: Can we do a better job of teaching our children and getting parents more involved in the education system, or are we satisfied with what we have now?

If we can do better, if we want to throw off the inertia of years of doctrinaire bureaucracy and unresponsive officialdom, and inject competition, now is the time and SJR 9 is the way. Those invested in the status quo say no, it is risky; more money and less interference are the answers.

To them, the idea of letting voters put moms and dads back in the educational equation by clearing the way for future school choice is terrifying. After all, they must be thinking, those people are not professionals. What do they know?

The only thing preventing an education sea change is Article XVII, Section 1, of the Alaska Constitution. It contains holdover language from a darker time in the 1800s: "No money shall be paid from public funds for the direct benefit of any religious or other private educational institution." Known as the Blaine Amendment, it is an antiquated symbol of anti-Catholic, anti-Irish bigotry grafted onto several state constitutions as a requirement to join the union.

If the Legislature were to approve SJR 9, voters could ditch that language, clearing the way -- finally -- for honest discussion about school vouchers or other forms of parental choice for funding government and non-government schools that perform.

The debate truly is not about separation of church and state; that was decided by the U.S. Constitution's "establishment clause." It is not about immediately setting up a voucher system. It certainly is not about breaking the public school system.

It is about taking the first steps toward fixing a broken system, a playground for teachers' unions and bureaucrats whose only answer for chronic problems is cash. When asked how much, the answer always is: more, much more.

Where do the bulk of those education billions go? To salaries and benefits. It is no wonder unions fear SJR 9 like Superman fears kryptonite. The Wall Street Journal reports that in fiscal 2011, "The Alaska school system spent more than $6,500 per student on employee benefits, which include employee retirement and Social Security contributions along with insurance plans, considerably more than any other state in the country." And that likely does not include recent reimbursements to local governments for retirement fund shortfalls.

What has the largesse accomplished? Surely, after we have spent nearly $4 billion statewide annually, our kids are doing well. Alaska has the nation's second-highest per student education spending -- nearly $17,000 -- behind New York, at $19,000. Both, by the way, post mediocre scores. Frighteningly mediocre scores.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving public policy and human service reforms for kids, says nearly three-quarters of Alaska's fourth-grade students cannot read proficiently.

That conclusion is based on the stringent National Assessment of Educational Progress report. It found only four states with lower fourth-grade reading proficiency rates than Alaska.

What about the College Board's SAT tests, one of two commonly used tests to gauge student readiness and college success?

It showed only 43 percent of SAT takers in 2013 were ready for college-level work, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reports. In Alaska, 3,867 students took the exam. Their mean scores -- out of a possible 800 in each section -- were 508 in critical reading, 505 in math and 482 in writing. Nationally, the mean scores were 496 for critical reading, 514 for mathematics and 488 for writing. We spend a lot in Alaska for average.

It is time for that to change.

Those who oppose SJR 9 seem horrified by the idea of schools someday competing. It will strip money from public schools, they say, and destroy them. It will turn private schools into ideological camps, they say. There is, seemingly, nothing they will not say.

The truth is: School competition has worked in places such as Maine and New Hampshire. Why not here? What opponents to SJR 9 cannot argue with is this: Our educational system, despite billions of dollars, is not working for everyone and parents have little say.

It's been said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Just how crazy are we?

Paul Jenkins is editor of the AnchorageDailyPlanet.com.

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