Julia O'Malley: To improve education in Alaska, we should look at poverty, not vouchers

Julia O'Malley
Mark Thiessen

I called a bunch of Republican legislators last week trying to get specifics about plans for reforming the state's education system. I heard a lot of complaints. I heard about poor teachers you can't get rid of, about going back to "reading, writing and 'rithmetic," and about how much schools overspend on heat.

Then I watched Gov. Sean Parnell's State of the State speech, in which he called for more charter schools and education vouchers.

The more I heard, the more skeptical I became. There seems to be a sense that public schools are expensive and failing, and that funneling state money to even more expensive private schools will somehow fix that. I did not hear facts or considered plans.

The Legislature has withheld funding for public schools for years, forcing layoffs statewide because, legislators said, schools weren't "meeting standards." But when I looked at our schools and what makes students successful, it's apparent that the politicians are missing the big picture. By a mile.

For starters, at least here in the biggest district in the state, parents are satisfied. A recent Anchorage School District parent survey found that 90 percent of parents would recommend their children's schools. There are plenty of signs the district is improving, not getting worse. About 75 percent of students graduate in four years, and about 80 percent graduate in five years. Not fantastic but moving in the right direction. The dropout rate is less than 4 percent.

What legislators don't mention -- and may not know -- is that the challenges for educators increase every year because students have increasing needs. People who study educational success have delivered study after study that link poor student achievement with one thing: poverty. Legislators aren't talking about that, and they should be.

Children make up 26 percent of Alaska's population but they make up 37 percent of Alaskans living in poverty, according to the state. Students who come to school hungry, who are being raised by a single parent, who don't have a stable housing situation have a harder time in school, studies say. In Anchorage, roughly half the students are "economically disadvantaged," meaning they qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

When you start looking at child poverty and student test scores in Anchorage, you see a picture of haves and have-nots, where a neighborhood's median income often becomes a predictor of student performance.

Take the Anchorage Hillside. A recent state study found that the Hillside is the fastest-growing part of town, having tripled in population since 1980. Roughly 30,000 people now consider themselves Hillsiders. Sixty percent of those households make more than $100,000 a year. The only other neighborhood that wealthy is Turnagain. Hillside schools are good. Look at their scores. At South High, for example, 64 percent of female students are considered advanced in reading.

Now look at East Anchorage, a neighborhood with large pockets of poor families with children. In Mountain View, only 31 percent of households have an income above $50,000. In Russian Jack, 49 percent of households make more than $50,000, 16 percent make more than $100,000. Reading scores for girls at East High, which those neighborhoods feed? Only 33 percent are considered advanced. The picture in elementary schools is even starker. Now expand the pattern statewide. Parts of rural Alaska have poverty rates near 30 percent. Few places in the country are higher. Where poverty is high in Alaska, students struggle more.

Mayor Dan Sullivan is a critic of the Anchorage School District and a big fan of education in Finland. The thing about Finland, though, is it has one of the lowest child poverty rates among developed countries, according to UNICEF. (The same study found the U.S. has the second highest level of child poverty, right behind Romania.)

How do we get more students to meet higher standards? Students with challenges because of economics need interventions. Interventions cost more money up front but tend to save money down the line and improve performance. One very effective intervention is preschool.

Adults who attended preschool are less likely to be incarcerated (have you seen our ballooning corrections budget in Alaska?), single parents or teen parents. They also do better on tests. Unless you qualify for a Head Start program -- which has more restrictive income requirements than free and reduced lunch -- preschool is generally only available to people in Anchorage who can pay between $800 and $1,000 a month for it. This is just one more way economics stands in the way of student success.

Anchorage has a number of in-demand charter schools and alternative schools. Many of those schools have high test scores but if you look closely, you'll see that they don't have large numbers of low-income students. Are they better schools? Maybe. They might also have more well-off students primed for success.

Why do these school demographics look the way the do if anyone can go there and students are chosen by random lottery? Here's a theory: Sending a kid to a school outside your neighborhood, without a bus, is a luxury that a shift-working parent might not be able to afford. Same goes for private schools.

Which brings me to another question: How does having the state pick up the cost of private school for students who already have the means to pay for it help economically disadvantaged kids who are struggling? It doesn't, according to many researchers.

One more question: Are any of these legislators doing their homework, looking at studies, taking testimony from experts, or are they just grabbing at anecdotes? When I listen to them, I can't tell. I also can't tell if they are concerned with having good schools or cheaper schools. It's hard to have both. But good schools pay economic dividends.

One of the biggest myths in all of this is that we have a crisis when it comes to paying for education. The problem is priorities. Legislators are happy to spend on all kinds of less essential things. Like paying twice the going rate for new legislative office space, or building football fields and indoor tennis courts, as teachers get laid off.

Could we put some of our billions into an endowment, and fund education at least in part with the earnings? That's been suggested, several politicians said, but the idea hasn't been seriously explored.

What's scary is that the solutions under discussion seem so disconnected from the actual problem. More cuts aren't a solution to anything.

Julia O'Malley writes a regular column. Reach her by phone at 257-4591, email her at jomalley@adn.com, follow her on Facebook or Twitter: @adn_jomalley.

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