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Alaska's struggling education system can ill-afford to spend money on private schools

Tony Knowles

The unfortunate result of the divisive and ill-advised attempt to change Alaska's constitution regarding educational funding has been to divert the attention and efforts of lawmakers from the critical question of how we can improve the education of all Alaska children.

Let’s first dispense with the approach that a voucher system should replace Alaska’s constitutional mandate that public education funds can only be spent on public schools.  Backers claim that taking funds away from public schools and allowing allocations to private and religious schools will improve education overall. Nonsense.

The truth is, time and again, voucher programs in the Lower 48 have siphoned money out of public school systems without demonstrating any improvements in graduation rates or student performance.

The authors of Alaska’s Constitution passionately believed that good schools were important for Alaska children. That’s exactly why they stated, with purpose and clarity, in Article 7, “The legislature shall by general law establish and maintain a system of public schools open to all children of the State ... No money shall be paid from public funds for the direct benefit of any religious or other private educational institution.”

Were these constitutional authors and leaders of Alaska against educational choice or anti-religious? Of course not. They were, however, determined that no public dollar was to be expended to support any school that was not available -- because of religious or financial or other selective criteria -- to all children.

Choice has flourished in Alaska’s public education system, offering families a wide variety of selections, including optional schools, ABC schools, special immersion opportunities, charter schools, online curricula and home-schooling.

Instead of spending time on a divisive constitutional change that would take from all children to give to a few, let’s focus on the educational investments that experts agree are critical -- adequate state funding, early learning, and making sure students are ready to learn.

Seriously reducing budgets by transferring public funding to support private and religious schools is a substantial step backward in a state that’s already budgeting for education inadequately. One nonpartisan report by the Legislative Research Division found that a school voucher program in Alaska could take $100 million or more directly out of public school funding.

By 2013, the state’s operating budget had increased 45 percent -- or more than $3 billion -- since 2007. During the same period, state education budgets increased barely enough to match the rate of inflation. The Base Student Allocation has remained flat at $5,680, meaning school districts have had to do more with less as other costs rise. Statewide teacher layoffs are the consequences of this near-sighted budgeting.

Every study has shown that early learning pays long-term rewards of success in high school graduation, college attendance, and employment. Thirty states now make significant commitments to pre-kindergarten education, but Alaska is woefully behind. Alaska’s Best Beginnings organization and The United Way in Anchorage are leaders in showing what Alaska can do to catch up and excel.

Making sure each child attends school every day ready to learn pays substantial dividends. This begins with pre-natal health care to prevent the life-long effects of alcohol, drugs, and tobacco on unborn children. Alaska has 4,500 homeless children, a child abuse rate ranked 45th in the nation, and 12 percent of our children have no health care insurance.

Every elected official should read the University of Alaska Anchorage ISER series entitled "Kids Count" for a true picture of Alaska’s children. These kids desperately need a fair chance to learn.

Our teachers, whose ranks are already thinned by spending cuts, are spending more time as nurses, social workers, disciplinarians, and counselors and less as teachers as they address the unmet needs of Alaska’s children.

If the goal really is better educational outcomes for all students, let’s put our attention and dollars back on what works for all kids.  Every dollar spent making sure kids go to school not hungry, not sick, and not abused -- and every dollar spent providing excellent public education opportunities -- will pay unbelievable dividends.

Tony Knowles was Alaska’s seventh governor, serving from 1994 to 2002.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.