Parents, students, teachers and school administrators have sent lawmakers a clear message about Alaska's schools:
No more cuts by way of flat funding.
No standing by as districts lay off teachers, increase class sizes and give back hard-won gains in lower drop-out rates and higher graduation rates.
That message is right on the money.
Great Alaska Schools, a grass-roots group formed after school districts around the state announced serious cuts in teaching ranks, has said a $404 boost in the base student allocation for Anchorage, and increases of $125 per year for two years thereafter, will restore Anchorage schools to their stronger position of 2011. Amounts vary for other districts in the state.
The Senate Finance Committee has approved a substantial but stop-gap response: grants for the next two years of $100 million a year (which includes what was previously $25 million in energy assistance) to be given to school districts based on student populations and to use as they determine. Sen. Berta Gardner said those will cover much of the $404 request, but won't change the base student allocation of $5,680. In other words, the grants will help over the next two years, but after that schools could be back in the same situation, warning teachers of layoffs and cutting programs.
Still, it's clear the committee has heard the public outcry over public school cuts.
Gov. Sean Parnell has proposed a modest increase in the base allocation, although he has said he expects the Legislature to approve more. He also has said that the campaign to boost school funding has been an overrreaction, that we go through this sort of thing every year.
He's partly right. We have been here before, but the exercise doesn't get any better with repetition. This year the cuts grew worse, with teachers and counselors on the block and the quality of education further diminished. So the response hasn't been an overreaction but an expression of frustration and exhausted patience.
This time around parents, students, and business and civic organizations have raised their voices to say, enough.
Education is expensive. And the Alaska Constitution makes it an explicit obligation of the state. Anchorage and other districts have taxed to the state cap on local contributions, while some districts depend entirely on the state for funding. That's why the districts have asked lawmakers to meet their constitutional obligation.
Districts can't plan with any certainty when every horizon is short. Parents can't depend on programs being there for their children. Some of this is budget timing. But some is the result of passive cuts that have let rising costs erode classroom budgets.
It's time we wised up.
None of this argues against greater efficiencies in spending and honest stewardship of public money. Schools must be a priority -- and must be accountable. Efforts to make every dollar count, and free more for the classroom, should be continuous. Nobody gets a free pass.
But we can be sure of one thing. Cut teachers, cut programs, cut supplies and you'll provide a poorer education.
The Senate Finance Committee took a long step in the right direction, but the Legislature should go the distance. Raise the BSA to restore the cuts and reinvigorate Alaska schools.
BOTTOM LINE: Reverse the destructive cuts and invest in Alaska's public schools.