Compass: Alaskans should have full range of school choices

Education -- the gaining or transfer of knowledge -- is really one of the basic functions of life. Education is big business. It's what takes place in hotel conference rooms, and it is the fundamental purpose of convention centers. Education doesn't start with preschool, nor end with a college degree, or even a PhD. It's why we have a brain with a nervous system feeding it information from our five senses.

Much of human activity in this world is intended to affect how well education is accomplished. Attentive parents spend much of their time teaching and nurturing their children. We spend vast amounts of money on schools where educators add to the effort.

Then there is "the media."

Ours is called the "Information Age." People with a good idea of how to convey information better have founded new schools, started news networks, created the Internet or improvements to it and invented computers, smartphones, fax machines, and other gadgets. With these aids to communication information is literally flying everywhere at the speed of light.

When it comes to formal education, all this has rendered the education model of one teacher at a chalk board in front of a class of 15 to 40 students expounding on some chapter in a text book as obsolete as a Princess phone.

Our standings in national test scores witness to the need for improvements to Alaskan education. For example, our fourth grade reading scores for low-income students were dead last; reading scores for fourth-grade middle/upper income students were 49th out of 51.

Parental interest in improved ways of schooling has given rise to home-schooling, charter schools, and a demand for other educational options.

The administrators of our public schools have been slow to respond to these demands.

How else would you explain the persistent waiting lists of students wanting to enroll in programs which have shown good results?

As of Sept. 30, 2013, in Anchorage, for example, we had the following waiting lists:

• Northern Lights ABC school: 306.

• Denali Montessori school: 577.

• Aquarian Charter School: 816.

• Polaris School: 765.

• Eagle Academy Charter School: 152.

• Winterberry Charter School: 199.

Charter schools with their emphasis on various objectives may be difficult to duplicate, but what is the legitimate reason why we can't convert enough elementary schools to the ABC-type curriculum in order to satisfy that demand?

The Constitution of the State of Alaska needs to be amended to allow the Legislature to provide families the option of choosing the schools their children attend. A sentence in Article VII of the state constitution, sometimes referred to as the Blaine Amendment, currently prohibits the Legislature from directly or indirectly funding parental choices of alternative schools.

Many Alaskans are content with the offerings of their neighborhood public school. For those who are not satisfied, the Blaine Amendment needs to go. In education, one size doesn't fit all. There are too many different needs for one giant bureaucracy to effectively meet.

In many cases the private sector is stepping up to the plate and providing solutions. In Alaska, there are more than 2200 students paying tuition to attend the top five (by attendance) private K-12 schools.

Educational achievement in Alaska could take a giant leap forward were parents free to use their child's government-provided educational allotment on the school of their choice, whether it be a public or private sector developed program.

Passage of Senate Joint Resolution 9, which is ready to be voted upon by the Legislature, is required to put the question on the 2014 ballot so Alaskan voters could decide this issue. If you haven't expressed your views on this issue to your state senator and representative, now is the time to do so.

Jess T. Ellis, DDS, MS, has been an itinerant endodontist practicing in Alaska for 25 years. He has testified before the Alaska Legislature as an advocate of choice in education.