The Concerned: We hope Alaska students win the competition over schools

Scott Woodham
Aaron Jansen illustration

To: Alaska's Future
Subject: Dodgeball

Dear Kids,

Man are we concerned about you lately. Alaska's education landscape seems to be entering a period of change, that much is certain. The rest of it is uncertain, which is no surprise. You probably know this by now, but adults often disagree, especially when they care about something and it involves money.

In the last several years, various levels of government and parts of the education sector have been conducting a reform campaign. The reform is centered around increasing things like, “accountability,” “competition,” and “choice,” as if an education is a pair of pants. But it's all based on the idea that the effects of education can be measured and applied the same to every individual, and that every individual will get the same results.

The results from these ideas nationwide are mixed, but that's how people are, isn't it? A mixed bag. We're just relieved the federal reformers haven't brought up the idea of taking Alaska's boarding schools back over.

The governor's new proposed budget has school boards and administrators at several districts freaked. They're being given nigh impossible goals to prove the value of what they do through new standards and tests, all with flat funding and rising costs. There is widespread pressure to improve the public schools, yet their funding and resources available to attract the best teachers always seems in jeopardy. If you're confused, you're not alone. Judging from the lack of student protests, at least you're not that concerned.

Most of the big districts are saying that the cuts they could be forced to make this time through the gauntlet will damage the goal of getting more of you to graduate on time and at a level that may be beyond your potential or needs.

In Anchorage, they've even started talking about getting rid of summer school. We know some of you might be completely stoked about that, but if you can't make up your credits, you might graduate late or opt for a GED, both fine options. But if you do either, you'll become another number that reflects poorly on the system, no matter what your personal situation was and no matter what happens to you after school. The worst part about those options is apparently that neither of them scores points for the schools or politicians. The feds aren't counting towards the win column young people who may have fought through a lot of crap that life dished out and ended up achieving for themselves beyond what anyone expected of them.

And make no mistake, the system is broken for many of you. You've proven that generation after generation. Lately, solutions involve facilitating additional alternatives to public school, including charter schools, private and religious schools, and other, less collective options, even some that are operated for profit.

One lawmaker has even proposed allowing public money to help students attend private and religious schools, in the name of "choice" because some families who want to reportedly can't afford to pay tuition at such schools. Currently, the Alaska Constitution doesn't allow public education money to go for a private purpose, so who knows where that proposal will wind up.

We're not so concerned about whether or not the state should get involved financially with religious schools, or whether or not those schools might want to subject themselves to strings attached to state money. We're mostly concerned that such private schools are at the outset proving they're unable to keep costs low enough to satisfy the demand for their services. Which is odd, because these days, competition among schools and teachers is being touted as a hot new way to improve the lives of young people.

We have no idea how private school vouchers would affect students in long sub-standard rural schools. There aren't exactly satellite campuses dotting the tundra. But we do know that rural communities have been asking for more local control to meet unique cultural and educational needs of their students lives, and that when they get it, there have been successes.

It seems to us that the move toward smaller, more flexible family or community groups in control of education makes sense, especially in Bush Alaska, where teachers from Outside have no idea what they're getting into and have proven uninterested in sticking around long.

Plenty of evidence exists to support the premise that children learn best when they feel safe, so it makes sense that the safest a student could feel is at home. If that home is a loving one, that is. Unfortunately, not all of you have one of those. Or food. Food's important to learning too. And not all of you have enough of that.

And recently, judges determined that Alaska's public school system was not living up to its promise to be fair to every one of you. Months ago, a judge found that the state wasn't funding rural and urban schools equitably. And another, just the other day in fact, presided over a settlement to a lawsuit that claimed the state wasn't providing enough oversight for the most afflicted schools, all of them rural.

But if the current shift toward a variety of non-public alternatives really takes off, it will have the added bonus of giving the state a buffer against lawsuits.

In that light, if every individual student constituted a school and parents got paid to direct an individualized, tailored course of study, that would be ideal. No big campuses or maintenance, no teacher pensions or housing, no unions. No costly performing arts halls, chemistry labs or art studios. Just a handful of people in Juneau to process all the standardized tests and cut checks.

But even though that would cut lawsuits down dramatically and force parents to be more involved in your schooling, inequality would still rear its head, and it wouldn't create much choice.

Then again, that idea won't work for every neighborhood or town. Which is why, though we're concerned about the idea that schools alone are responsible for your education, and about the idea that teachers can be measured in any accurate way by testing students, we're at least happy there's a conversation happening. We're confident you'll learn the best you are able to no matter what.

People often say you're like little sponges soaking up the environment, no matter what it contains. So if the future of Alaska's education system contains competition between schools and teachers and dwindling resources, we hope you'll be the ones soaking in victory.

The big silver lining to all of this is that it's apparent there are a great number of people in Alaska who care about how well you're prepared for the future. It's yours no matter what side wins.


Think fast,
The Concerned