Compass: Make public schools a priority again

I'm a small business owner from South Anchorage. Last week, I closed my bakery and flew to Juneau for three days because I care deeply about our public education system, and I'm concerned about the cuts our schools are facing. I wanted to let our legislators know, face to face, how I feel.

I was born and raised in Anchorage, and attended public school here. I went Outside for college and graduate school, then came back to Alaska. My daughter is now a third-grader at Rabbit Creek Elementary School.

Alaska's public schools are funded by a combination of federal, state and municipal funds. Most of the funds come from the state. The portion of those funds that can be spent directly on teachers in the classroom (as opposed to capital projects) is called the base student allocation, or BSA. Since 2011, the BSA has not been increased to match inflation, which has resulted in a significant decrease of funds that can go to teachers in our classrooms. More than 150 teachers in Anchorage will need to be laid off next year if our BSA isn't increased.

My goal in Juneau was to ask our legislators to restore the funds that have been eroded from the BSA since 2011. An increase of $400 would make up for the inflation that has left our schools scrambling. I also support inflation-proofing the BSA, or at least forward-funding it by three years, to provide predictable and stable funding that would greatly increase administrative efficiency.

I learned a lot in the three days I spent in the Capitol. One is that funding mechanisms are complicated, and I don't have all the answers about the best way to fund our public schools. What I do know, though, is that prioritizing education funding really works in Alaska.

When legislators, beginning in 2004, significantly increased the BSA, we turned around our lousy graduation rates. Anchorage graduation rates were at around 66 percent in 2004, and now they are up to 79 percent. It seems absolutely possible that we will hit Anchorage's target "90 percent in 2020," which would have been inconceivable in 2004. In addition to improved graduation rates, reading, writing and math scores are also improving. Suspension rates fell, although in the past year numbers have begun to climb again due to the elimination of many counseling positions.

Another thing I learned during my brief sojourn in Juneau is that every one of our legislators say they want good schools for our children. This isn't a "Pro-School" vs. "Anti- School" debate. But many of them aren't ready to prioritize education spending over other projects. That's OK. We still have a few weeks left of the session to convince them that investing in our public education system is vital to a strong economy and a healthy community.

Support is swelling in Anchorage for adequately funding our public schools. There are already more than 750 members of the new Great Alaska Schools-Anchorage group (great These are parents, community members and business people. We have seen the impacts in our schools over the past few years due to lost positions and have been mobilized by the threat of more cuts. We are Republicans, Independents and Democrats coming together because the issue of strong public schools transcends any political label or division.

In another effort, parent leaders from more than 50 parent-teacher organizations in Anchorage and Eagle River have come together to support a significantly increased and stabilized base student allocation. And the new movement Students With a Voice has almost 800 members.

Please, Anchorage, join me in telling our legislators that you support a significant and sustained increase to the BSA to replace the funding lost to inflation since 2011. Our legislators are listening, and they need to hear from us.

Alison Arians owns Rise & Shine Bakery and believes that a strong economy begins with a strong foundation of public education.