Compass: Let's decide what we want from our public schools

As a new school year begins, parents and students are focused on new school schedules, extracurricular activities and, of course, homework. At the same time legislators from across the state are meeting to discuss public education in Alaska.

After a 2013 legislative session that introduced legislation regarding vouchers, tax tuition credits, independent charter schools, grading of public schools and retaining third-graders, legislators are now discussing the cost drivers of public education.

At last week's Senate Finance Subcommittee meeting, school district superintendents did a great job outlining what schools need to educate Alaska's children. In addition, they also focused on the needed investment in professional development for educators to successfully implement the new Alaska State Standards and the teacher evaluation system.

While understanding "what things cost" is important, it may have been better for legislators to start with: What are the outcomes Alaska needs and wants from public education?

This past week also saw the release of the annual PDK/Gallup Poll on Education results. What the survey tells us is the majority of Americans are interested in schools that build students' character; promote students' well-being; foster creativity; and teach students to work collaboratively, set meaningful goals and develop communication and critical thinking skills. Over 90 percent of Americans believe that a well-rounded education, which includes activities like music, sports, drama and the school newspaper, is important.

The PDK/Gallup Poll also demonstrated that the public continues to support public education and is not interested in "education reform" such as vouchers.

• Nearly three-quarters of parents would give their own schools an A or B, with nearly 10 percent more assigning an "A" grade then they did 10 years ago.

• Seventy percent of Americans oppose private school vouchers, the highest level of opposition to vouchers ever recorded in this survey.

• Americans identified the biggest and most overwhelming problem facing public schools as lack of financial support.

• Over 72 percent of Americans have confidence in the men and women who teach in public schools.

Public education has always been the great equalizer in this country. Public schools open their doors for all Alaskan's children -- for those students who live in rural areas, urban centers or in between, and for those who are gifted and talented, have special needs, and rich or poor.

We all have a stake in every child's future. As Alaskans we have an important decision to make. We can support our public schools and work at finding solutions to the challenges that our students face, or we can throw our support behind vouchers and tax tuition credits and slowly tear apart the one public institution that has inspired and educated amazing Alaskan leaders for decades.

NEA-Alaska is committed to improving public schools by working with school district leaders, parents, community members and the Legislature to ensure every educator is a great educator, create opportunities for innovative learning, increase the amount of time students are engaged in learning, implement a quality teacher evaluation system, reinforce effective family-school partnerships and deliver a varied and rich curriculum.

Yes, it is important to understand what it costs to educate a child, especially in times of deficit spending. But for Alaska to thrive economically and socially, decisions made about public education today cannot be focused only on this moment in time. Public education is one of the greatest investments as a society we can make in our children and in ourselves.

As children across Alaska start the school year, let's join them in celebrating this special time by standing up to support our public schools and participating in the discussion on what we want for Alaska's children and our great state.

Ron Fuhrer is president of the National Education Association-Alaska.