Compass: Alaska schools need more than Legislature gave

The governor signed House Bill 278 on Tuesday, titled the "Education Opportunity Act." I'm sure some will call the legislation a successful compromise but don't be fooled by those assertions. The bill failed our students and everyone who wants what is best for Alaska's public schools.

Great Alaska Schools is a nonpartisan coalition of parents and community members motivated by a deep desire for quality public education in Alaska. Our membership spans the political spectrum, from folks who see education as a basic human right to those who simply recognize the economic value of an educated workforce.

Good things are happening in our classrooms in Anchorage and beyond, but we have a lot of work to do to increase our student performance and graduation rates. This begs a basic key question that drives our grassroots work -- how can we expect our schools to make improvements if they're hamstrung by budget deficits?

Lack of adequate school funding translates into cuts affecting our classrooms: fewer teachers, increased class sizes, fewer course options, eliminated tutoring programs and broken relationships with trusted and influential adults in students' lives.

Week after week this past winter, thousands of Alaskans joined Great Alaska Schools and rallied, wrote letters, emailed, made phone calls and provided public testimony asking the Legislature to do the right thing for Alaska's students and increase the Base Student Allocation (BSA) by $400-$125-$125 over the next three years.

After all this public input, I wish I could say we witnessed great leadership and collaboration in Juneau on behalf of our schools, but I can't. Instead, we traveled from one meeting room to another, counted votes, met with lawmakers and staff, analyzed legislation and countered a series of mistruths regarding "equivalents to the BSA," which were preposterous.

We met with legislators who had clout and heard apologies, statements about hands being tied, deflective commentary about a broken formula and failing schools, calls to innovate instead of fund and assertions that we ourselves were the ones misconstruing the numbers. There was certainly political will to fund a myriad of expensive special projects, but when it came to investing in our kids' education, we were told repeatedly that Alaska just didn't have the resources.

Great Alaska Schools is committed to doing everything we can to ensure every public school in Alaska is treated fairly next session.

Our charter schools were given special attention this session. I appreciate that support as a charter school parent but our Legislature should disburse public funds to public schools in an equitable manner statewide. It pains me to see the majority of our schools overlooked.

We cannot allow extremism in our state capitol to starve our public school system, and we'll do whatever it takes to influence changes that will give our students quality educational experiences and provide adequate and sustainable funding necessary to facilitate those experiences in all our classrooms.

Anchorage is fortunate that our Assembly bolstered support for our schools by increasing their local contribution to the Anchorage School District this year, but that wouldn't have been necessary if the Legislature hadn't failed to act. Even with our Assembly's good work, we'll still fall short, and there will be cuts within our classrooms. We're worried about other communities in Alaska that cannot lean on local leadership to bridge their funding gap. How will the shortfall impact students in those classrooms next year?

Great Alaska Schools' members have remained active since the session ended. Our membership continues to grow and branch out across Alaska. We're collaborating with business and community leaders, and we're continuing our conversations with legislators.

We're invigorated by the prospect of what we can accomplish together moving forward. To learn more and get involved, connect with Great Alaska Schools Anchorage on Facebook or visit www.greatalaskaschools.org.

Jessie Menkens is a founding member of Great Alaska Schools in Anchorage. She attended K-12 in the Anchorage School District and served on the State Board of Education as the student adviser. She is a mother of two children, age 4 and 7, and her oldest is a student at Winterberry Charter School.



By JESSIE MENKENS