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Compass: Alaska kids deserve fully funded schools

We can do better to make sure students have a chance to succeed. We need to reverse the three-year course of cutting educational staff across the state. These are people who educate our children and help them succeed.

It's time to make sure Alaska's children are given the chance to reach their full potential. An educated work force will grow our economy and reduce jail and social services costs.

If the governor and the GOP leadership succeed in their $1 billion- to $2 billion-a-year oil tax giveaway -- the biggest component of which doesn't require oil companies to reinvest any of that money in Alaska -- the cuts to our schools will go even deeper into the classroom. I and others have proposed reform that will work, and that doesn't cut Alaska's fair share for our oil by the billions. We allow reasonable tax relief, but only if companies invest in Alaska to produce new oil. If we end up with the governor's bill, which will guarantee $1 billion to $2 billion annual deficits, children will not be given the tools they need to succeed, and we'll pay for that in the long run. There is no reason to send our economy and schools over a fiscal cliff.

Improving our schools, and reversing educator cuts, shouldn't be a Democratic issue. While I and other Democrats have filed legislation to reverse this course of educator cuts, as we have in the past, improving schools needs to be a bipartisan issue.

Over the last three years, most Alaska school districts have lost teachers, job counselors, guidance counselors, tutors and needed staff. The governor's school budget proposal continues that damaging spiral.

The governor has taken another harmful step. He's cut modest legislative proposals to improve one of the nation's worst pre-K systems, and now a legislative subcommittee is cutting them further. The current pre-K system in Alaska only serves a small fraction of families who would voluntarily choose to help their children succeed through early learning programs, whether at home with counselors or in pre-K classrooms.

Numerous studies show that reaching youths, whether at home or in the classroom, by age 4 increases their chance of school success, work success, and success in going to college or getting job training. It also helps them stay out of jail.

In Anchorage, over 200 educators and support staff will be lost next year under the governor's proposal. That's on top of losing 150 teacher and support staff over the past three years. In Mat-Su, students have lost over 100 teacher and staff positions over the past three years even though the number of students is rising.

The story is the same in smaller school districts. Juneau students have lost 30 teachers and staff over the past three years. In Kodiak, a small school district, students have lost more than 30 teachers and support staff during the past three years. The story gets repeated in the Northwest Arctic Borough, Sitka, Nome and across the state.

So how does the governor claim "record" school funding? Well, in 2007, under Gov. Palin, Democrats and Republicans joined to help fund underfunded pension trust funds for state and municipal employees, including teachers. The governor counts that money in claiming he has increased education funding. Unfortunately, none of those retirement trust funds can be used in the classroom. And he counts funds we've used for busing students to school -- which have gone up as gasoline prices have increased. Those funds are used for busing, not for the classroom.

When it comes to classroom funding, however -- funds for teachers, job counselors and other staff -- per-student funding has fallen behind inflation. And, with steeply rising health costs private and public employees face, insurance premiums for all of us have risen faster than inflation. This has forced school districts to lay off educators.

The victims are children with dreams of success. It's time to do better. It's time to make a commitment to education that our schools can count on. We should not risk Alaska becoming an educational backwater.

Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, has served in the state House of Representatives since 2003. Email, rep.les.gara@akleg.gov.



By REP. LES GARA