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Our View: Fund our schools

Chris Miller

Alaskans should make this a bipartisan issue in 2014: Stop the bleeding at our public schools.

Three years of inflation and increased costs in areas like transportation coupled with flat funding of the base student allocation have come to a head this year. Six Alaska school districts face serious budget shortfalls. Anchorage has taken a $23 million hit that has forced the layoffs for the next school year of 143 teachers, seven counselors and 50 other staffers.

And those cuts would have been deeper if the School Board hadn't voted to tap reserves to retain 16 teaching and three counseling positions.

You don't get a smarter, more capable Alaska by slashing teaching staffs, increasing stress and decreasing opportunities for students. You don't keep making progress toward a 90 percent graduation rate by cutting graduation counselors.

That's the reality Alaska schools are facing now.

That's the reality Alaska lawmakers need to change.

SCHOOLS SQUEEZED

Local efforts to keep kids on track in schools and increase graduation rates have been successful. Great Alaska Schools, a grass-roots advocacy group formed in the last month to reverse the erosion in public school classrooms, points out that gains have been made in recent years, with graduation rates going up and dropout rates down. But with the cuts in the last three years -- including graduation counselors -- graduation progress has slowed and members fear a reversal in the dropout decline.

This doesn't make sense. It's as if one part of our local and state leadership -- school officials, Anchorage Chamber of Commerce, business partners, parents -- has been rowing hard to make things better, while the governor and lawmakers have been rowing in the other direction with de facto cuts in the funding that goes right to the classroom.

For example, lawmakers passed a bill several years ago that limits how much local taxpayers can contribute to public schools. Anchorage is at its local cap of about $192 million. Part of the reason for this is equity among school districts, so that kids in a poorer district won't suffer by contrast with a richer district. But another reason was to use state power to rein in local school budgets. And now districts are being squeezed from both sides -- local limits and a base student allocation that hasn't kept up with the cost of living.

That doesn't square with the state's constitutional obligation to provide for the education of its children.

PARENTS PUSH BACK

Now parents are pushing back against the squeeze. Great Alaska Schools is a parent-driven organization, and those parents are calling for a $404 increase in the base student allocation, the per-student amount the state sends to school districts. In Anchorage, that provides more than half of the schools' operating budget. Great Alaska Schools says that amount would offset the cuts inflicted since 2011. With passage, the Anchorage School District and others could recall their pink slips.

Gov. Sean Parnell has proposed modest increases in the base student allocation but nothing near what would be required to prevent teacher and counselor layoffs in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau and other districts. Again, this makes no sense. Half measures are better than none but they still shortchange students.

You cannot make Alaska communities stronger if you make our public schools weaker.

Our schools shouldn't get a blank check any more than any other public institution does. "It's for the children" shouldn't be an excuse to spend too much or ignore waste. Schools should always aim to make the most of every public dollar spent -- and be accountable.

But the simple fact is that good education is expensive, and most expensive where learning happens -- between teachers and students.

Whether it's $404 or some other amount, our lawmakers should figure it out and invest to keep our schools responsive to the demands of educating all of Alaska's children who come to their doors.

BOTTOM LINE: Lawmakers should determine money needed to keep teachers and counselors on duty, then provide it.

 



Anchorage