Parents vow to take school-funding fight to ballot box

Richard Mauer

The "education session" of 2014 was a bust for the public school advocates who banded together as Great Alaska Schools, and they now are vowing to make this year the "education election" at the ballot box.

"We want to make public education a really big issue for people," said Becca Bernard, one of the parents involved in Great Alaska Schools. "We care about our kids' schools, and we care about having strong public schools for all children. We realized after this session that that is not as firmly supported in this state as we would've thought."

After taking off most of May to regroup, some 20 core members of the grass-roots organization they call "GAS" spent a full Sunday in retreat last week to decide what, if anything, to do next.

A couple of days after their meeting, seven of the group's informal leaders -- they have no official structure -- said over coffee with a reporter that they wouldn't go away quietly, no matter how disappointed they were with the last Legislature.

"We're going to be there next year," said Alison Arians, the owner of an Anchorage bake shop and mother of a child in Rabbit Creek Elementary School. "That's what we have to show our legislators because some of them said, 'Oh, you guys are just a flash in the pan.' "

They now plan to hold interviews and forums for candidates and create an education test for incumbents and challengers. Their "seal of approval" will be given or withheld based on whether the candidate supports their key issues, especially providing enough money for public schools to restore lost positions in Anchorage and districts around the state and to forestall layoffs in the coming years.

"We're focused on one issue and one issue only, and that is quality education for every child in Alaska," said Jessie Menkens, mother of a preschooler and a third-grader at Winterberry Charter School.

Grass-roots movement

Great Alaska Schools emerged as a parent organization in part as a reaction to questions by the co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, during a public hearing in February. The subject was a constitutional amendment to allow public funds to spent on private and religious schools, a measure supported by Kelly, one of the most conservative members of the Legislature. He made a point of asking a string of witnesses who testified against the amendment whether they were members of the teachers' union.

The parents who coalesced in Great Alaska Schools said they didn't want animosity toward unions to get in the way of support for education. Before long, they were becoming a grass-roots movement, paying their own way to commute to Juneau as Gov. Sean Parnell's omnibus education bill moved through the Legislature.

"I have not seen the likes of the groundswell we saw this session on education in a long time," said University of Alaska Anchorage history professor Stephen Haycox. "This current movement seems very grass roots, not particularly union-driven."

The parent advocates opposed the voucher amendment, which died without a vote. But they especially pushed to restore the state's per-pupil funding to what it was in 2011 and to inflation-proof it for at least three years. They held rallies in Anchorage and Juneau, and their children demonstrated at the Capitol. They testified at committee hearings, observed House and Senate floor votes, and sat through the conference committee that wrote the final compromise on education funding.

Their goal would have raised the funding formula known as the base student allocation by $400 in 2015 from the current $5,680 and added another $125 in each of the next two years.

While Democrats introduced bills and attempted to amend others to incorporate those amounts, their efforts went nowhere. When the session ended April, the final bill added $150 to the BSA in 2015 and $50 the following two years. Additional money was included outside the BSA, but the parents -- and school districts -- said only the BSA guaranteed the kind of long-term funding that would enable the restoration of lost positions.

"I was very disappointed with our results," said Deena Mitchell, a stay-at-home mom with children at West High and Romig Middle School. "I really, truly thought that if we could just sit down with the legislators and explain to them how the schools were being impacted, they would understand it and support it. Part of this was my naivete because I've never been involved before."

"We were real disappointed in the 'education session,' and we're real hopeful for an 'education election,' " added Alyse Galvin, a stay-at-home mom of two children in Steller Secondary School and two others in college who graduated from the Anchorage School District. "We didn't want to be in this business whatsoever, at least at being a truthsayer. Now we're definitely going to have to take some role."

'Seal of approval'

At their retreat, the parents said they considered turning Great Alaska Schools into a political action committee but decided against that kind of full-bore politics. Instead, they'll issue their "seal of approval" based on their experiences in Juneau and what they're able to learn about other candidates. They're nonpartisan, they said, and both a Republican and Democrat running for the same seat could get the passing grade; it's even possible that a legislator who opposed their funding requests in 2014 could as well.

"We are going to give somebody like Sen. (Kevin) Meyer the benefit of the doubt," said Mitchell, referring to the other co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee, which approved a bill without a BSA increase. "If he is willing to commit publicly and in writing to the criteria that we develop to get our seal of approval, then we are going to assume that he is a man of honor."

In an interview, Meyer defended the bill that passed the Senate with an "overall spend" of $125 million, even without the BSA increase.

"We ended up compromising, which is what legislation is all about -- compromise," Meyer said. "Whether that is enough or not enough, that's ultimately up to the voters to decide."

Even if Great Alaska Schools didn't achieve its goal, its members should feel pleased that they brought so much focus on education, he said.

"I don't know if this group is going to change my mind or educate me more on education than I already am, though it certainly doesn't hurt to have them out there educating all of us," he said. "They got an education, too, on how the process works. They were a little naive; they thought, 'We're going to come there, and we're just going to sit on their doorsteps until we get want.' "

Steve Aufrecht, professor emeritus of public administration at UAA and a writer who blogs on the Legislature, said the group would probably have to show some muscle in the next election if it hopes to amplify its voice.

"If people are organized, persistent, and they have a sizable group and they make enough noise, they can make a difference," Aufrecht said. "If someone thinks it could affect their election, they'll pay attention."

Turning lawmakers' heads

As evidence that legislators are indeed paying attention, the parents cited the end-of-session newsletter published by Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage, which featured a full page on the education bill and a photo of Hawker posing with Arians. But they said Hawker was no friend of theirs.

"Some of the legislators are spinning the results and saying, 'It was great, we got schools everything they needed, and I helped do that,' " Mitchell said. "Some of the legislators even put pictures of us on their newsletters and tried to make it seem like we were happy with them. We are a group that is going to unspin that and call legislators on these things and not let them get away saying that."

Hawker said he got Arians' permission before he used the photo in his newsletter.

"I picked this picture because I really felt good about the long honest dialogue we had on an important issue while she was in Juneau -- and our exchanges both before and after that," Hawker said in an email. And he noted in the text of the newsletter that the education bill was a compromise that not everyone was happy with, though he was pleased it included a study of the existing funding formula to make it better in the future.

But Arians said she was "outraged" when she saw Hawker had used the picture. She posed for the shot -- and agreed Hawker could use it -- during a visit to his office in March when he described himself as an architect of the previous BSA increase.

"I said, 'Great, how can you help in this situation?' He said, 'Oh, I don't have any power, I can't do anything. I'm not on the Finance Committee, don't talk to me about it, I'm not in charge.' I said, 'If you do get in a situation, I hope you'll stand up for education.' "

As it turned out, that's precisely how the situation unfolded. The House and Senate passed different versions of the education bill, and Hawker was appointed chairman of the six-member House-Senate free conference committee to resolve the differences and propose a compromise bill that would allow the Legislature to adjourn.

Back home in Anchorage, Arians sent Hawker an email reminding him of their conservation in March and cheering him on. But then she tuned in the proceedings on a "Gavel-to-Gavel" broadcast and saw Hawker was not the ally she had hoped.

Speaking as a free conference committee chairman, Hawker referred to an earlier position taken by the House Education Committee "that we and the public feel that we're not getting the value we want out of our schools, and the concern is that we want to see some performance improvements before we, the Legislature, set up and simply write a check, essentially rewarding the status quo."

Power for change

From the day they arrived in Juneau, the Great Alaska Schools parents had insisted that before the Legislature talked about school performance, it needed to restore the money the BSA lost to inflation over the years of flat funding. Schools could restore jobs for teachers, counselors and other employees that had been eliminated, they said.

"Do we need to do better? Yes," said Galvin. "But you can't be better with fewer resources."

Hawker's committee returned a bill with a smaller BSA than was passed by the House.

"I was just torn up about this," Arians said. "I had put that picture on my Facebook page and said, 'I'm so glad to have a representative who really cares about the schools and is going to work to increase our BSA.' I put that up! ... Then he said that on the very first day, as the chair, setting the tone for that conversation. I was really upset."

"All candidates are going to say they're education candidates," Galvin acknowledged. But the parents' questionnaires and interviews should be tough enough to tell which really support public schools, she said.

"When we come up with a seal of approval, and then we tell our membership, 'This is who got our seal of approval, and this is who didn't, and by the way here's a list of how you contact this candidates who got our seal of approval,' I wouldn't underestimate the power to make a change in Juneau," Arians said.

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