Compass: Alaska must invest in its schools, not shortchange its students

Alaska's parents understand better than anyone when their children's opportunity to succeed is being threatened. And they're speaking up. That's what happened when parents came out in force to fight for their children's education at a recent Legislative hearing.

According to the nonpartisan Legislative Research division, over the last three years school districts have had to cut over 600 teachers, career and guidance counselors and other needed staff.

Investing in education is about opportunity and about giving Alaska children a fair chance at tomorrow's jobs. Employers need well-educated students to grow and diversify our economy. That's why the Anchorage Economic Development Corp. recently sounded the alarm that without quality schools, we harm efforts to build a quality economy.

We understand this and have voted to reverse the past three years of staff cuts. We voted to build, not diminish, educational opportunity. Public education should be a nonpartisan issue. Unfortunately, each attempt we made over the last three years to stem another year of educator cuts, and reverse them, met a wall of party line and governor opposition. Making a commitment to education must become nonpartisan again.

That's especially important this year. Gov. Sean Parnell just announced a school budget that leaves Alaska schools short -- yet again. Anchorage will have a $24 million shortfall under the governor's proposal and will need to lay off 200 more school staff.

In the Mat-Su, a growing school district, school officials sounded the alarm that they need better than the governor's fourth year in a row of no classroom funding increases. Statewide, the majority of Alaska students face a duller future if this continues.

A strong economy depends on all Alaska students, even ones with less than ideal homes, getting a fair chance at opportunity. Continually cutting educators means unnecessary frustration for children who would otherwise excel; less attention for children who need an extra hand; more missed signs of suicide, abuse, or neglect.

Many say schools should teach with evidence-based practices. We agree. The evidence says teachers should have time to teach to individual students. Decreasing teacher support doesn't let teachers spend needed time with students who'd benefit from individual attention.

The evidence also says preschool works. The mayor of New York City gets it. And it's not just Democratic officials who get it. In Oklahoma, a red state, children enjoy voluntary universal pre-K. But Parnell and his allies have vastly shortchanged pre-kindergarten in Alaska.

Why does early childhood education, at home or in preschool, work? Because a child's brain develops most rapidly by age four. When these children get the chance to learn, they learn well, and that confidence and early success carries far into their scholastic careers. Schools spend more money on children who fall behind. The more children with a head start, the better they'll learn, and the less we'll have to spend on remedial education.

Want evidence? The Perry Pre-School study followed two groups of low-income youth through adulthood. Those who attended pre-K graduated and attended college in higher numbers and cost the state less in welfare, jail, law enforcement and legal costs.

Let's also talk about a half truth the governor repeats -- that somehow classroom funding has been increasing but that's leading to teacher layoffs? Here's the full story. We've added funds to pay down billions in debt we owe to school retirement systems -- but that money cannot legally be spent in the classroom. It's the same with the increase to cover busing and heating costs. And the Legislature fixed a discriminatory funding formula many years ago that shortchanged rural students. That fix pre-dated the Parnell administration.

None of this has put needed funds into classrooms since 2011, when the "policy" of staff layoffs started.

If we want Alaska's children to have a chance at tomorrow's jobs, then we cannot allow the state to sacrifice student opportunity to yet another year of damaging cuts. That's something even politicians should be able to understand.

Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, has served in the state House since 2003. Rep. Harriet Drummond, also a Democrat, was an Anchorage School Board member before joining the Legislature in 2013.