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Steve Haycox: Confusion clouds our sense of purpose for public schools

Steve Haycox

It's rather inconsistent that so many Anchorage leaders point with pride to the diversity we now see in Anchorage's schools, yet lend their support to a voucher program that would vitiate the city's, and the state's, public schools. A widely reported recent study done by UAA sociology professor Chad Farrell and colleagues found that Mountain View is the most diverse census tract in the United States. Correspondingly, East Anchorage is the most diverse high school in the nation, followed by Bartlett and West Anchorage as No. 2 and No. 3. It's important to understand that diversity doesn't mean just that there's a large population of non-whites; diversity includes whites as well as others. That being said, white people are now a minority in Anchorage's schools overall -- 44 percent. That's quite a few years ahead of when demographers predict whites will become a minority in the nation: 2042.

The past half-century has seen a persistent flight from pubic schools in some parts of the country, a movement that began in the South after the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision in 1954 and the school integration battles of the late '50s and early '60s. Race was the initial motivator, but increasingly poor performance by a large number of students in public schools, coupled with discipline issues, has been offered as a justification.

Parents wanting to enroll their children in private schools have sought politically to secure public funding for those schools. The most common method has been legislation authorizing vouchers that can be redeemed at the school of the parents' choice, representing some portion the cost of having the children in the public school; in some counties, tax exemptions are also utilized. Since most of the parents opting for private schools are white, affluent and well-educated, withdrawing their children from the public schools lowers both the diversity of those schools and the number of high-performing students. It also takes money away from the public schools, already strapped for adequate funds. Lack of adequate funding is currently a serious handicap for Alaska's public schools.

In the last Alaska Legislature, two Wasilla Republicans, Sens. Charlie Huggins and Mike Dunleavy, worked hard to generate majority votes for a constitutional amendment authorizing vouchers here, a pet project of Gov. Sean Parnell supported by Outside groups. The effort failed. The public opposition to vouchers was very strong, determined and vocal, organized partly by the statewide non-partisan parent group Great Alaska Schools. Sens. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, and Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage, led the opposition in the state Senate. Not since the groundswell in the mid-1970s in support of the Molly Hootch settlement has the state seen a similar consensus on a school matter.

But in another school issue also pushed by Parnell, the Legislature eliminated the high school exit exam, required of all students since 2004 because of concern that too few graduating students were college- or career-ready. Eliminating the exam manifests another serious inconsistency. In leading the support for elimination in the state Senate, Gary Stevens noted that the exam did not demonstrate who was and was not college- or career-ready; many students still needed remedial work in math and writing. That was because the scores for passing the exam were too low. But neither does the replacement guarantee college or career readiness. All students must now take either the SAT, ACT or WorkKeys, a career skills assessment. But no minimum score is required! The Legislature merely wants students and their families to have the test-taking experience.

Alaska lags far behind the national average in the percentage of high school students who go on to college or post-secondary career training. A good part of that is readiness, not just lifestyle choices. Current educational philosophy militates against subjecting students to high-standard competitive assessments of their skill training and college preparedness. Deference is paid to different "learning styles." Yet whatever the learning style, 2+2 must still equal 4. Without comprehensive assessment, there's little notion of what students really know.

These inconsistencies reflect public confusion over the purpose of our schools and dismay over our students' post-school performance and capabilities. Without a public consensus on those points, the inconsistencies will remain.

Steve Haycox is a professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.


Steve Haycox
commentBy STEVE HAYCOX