Compass: Support and strengthen our public schools

By ROBERT BARNWELLFebruary 13, 2014 

At the beginning of this century, not so long ago, my wife and I and three young daughters lived in the volatile country of Venezuela for three years. We taught in a private school surrounded by 10-foot walls and a security team that may have outnumbered the teachers. The campus was beautiful, and the education rivaled the schools I had taught in for 12 years in Alaska (Unalaska and Seward). The difference was that it was private, and the tuition was very steep. If you didn't have a spare $10,000 for each child, you sought out a long line of other private schools, and, barring that, dumped your child into the public system with 40 students in a class that met three times a week for a few hours. The teachers were undertrained and often not paid for months at a time.

This system of education produced a population incapable of voting a decent politician into office. Hugo Chavez was easily elected, manipulating the public with impossible claims to help the poor who supported him. The economy was in shambles, and the crime rate was one of the worst in the hemisphere.

SJR 9, introduced by Sen. Mike Dunleavy, R-Wasilla, and supported by our governor, makes me shiver. If passed, this bill would put this state on equal footing with less developed countries around the world. Naive politicians are threatening this state's educational system, which forms the backbone of a solid democracy.

I watch well educated, modestly paid teachers work an average of 50-60 hours a week, constantly tweaking their instruction, and taking classes to better themselves. And they're not doing it to compete with the school next door. They deeply care about our greatest resource day in and day out.

In the last decade, our schools have been under attack. The public is constantly bombarded with data that undermines their credibility. Teachers, stressed to the breaking point, have little time or energy to defend their craft. In that same time frame, my daughters have lived overseas, and we've had two exchange students live with us during their high school years. Learning about educational systems abroad has reaffirmed my belief that we are measuring our system with the wrong tools. China, a country consumed with "quantifying" education (for hundreds of years), is now struggling to figure out how to introduce creativity into their schools. Our country's system is vibrant and strong, and the proof is in our excellent university system that has evolved to meet the needs of our students.

Supporters of this bill claim competition will improve the system. That's just not true -- students are not products. The framers of our constitution, both state and federal, were right: Keep public money free from sectarian control. The voucher system is a dark path of problems that ultimately will unravel our public education. Our biggest problem is dealing with poverty. Student performance is directly linked to family income. Vouchers would fragment our population. The public schools, tasked with providing for all students, would be underrepresented and underfunded. We would all lose, just like my privileged students in Venezuela who inherited a dysfunctional society.

My wife and I brought our children back to Alaska and its educational system. We wanted them to learn to get along with people from all walks of life, and to understand that intelligence isn't confined to the wealthy or a sectarian group. Ultimately it came down to developing one quality that makes all the difference: empathy. Our current system values and produces creative, caring and thoughtful people who together, despite our differences, make a better world.

Robert Barnwell was born and raised in Anchorage and now lives and teaches in Seward.

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