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Critics nitpick Alaska governor over labor nominee's GED

Amanda CoyneThe New York Times
Alaska Dispatch illustration

The Juneau Empire has the scoop on a story about Alaska’s new commissioner for the Department of Labor and Workforce Development. Pat Forgey writes that Dianne Blumer "appears to not have finished high school," though she did attend the University of Alaska Southeast for a while.

And at least one union member is trying to make hash out of her GED.

Turns out Blumer, who was appointed in May and will be up for confirmation next year, received a diploma by taking the General Educational Development tests, better known as the GED, instead of receiving a traditional high school diploma. She apparently didn't receive a college degree. 

Apparently, in a state that's trying to encourage its residents to get college degrees, a commissioner who is paid $135,000 isn't required to have one. Nor is a college degree required to qualify to be elected to the U.S. Senate. Alaska's Sen. Mark Begich  -- the former Democratic Anchorage mayor who toppled the late Sen. Ted Stevens (the longest-serving GOP senator in U.S. history who also held a Harvard law degree) by just a few thousand votes in 2008 -- doesn't have a college degree, either.

GED vs. high school diploma

The GED is a series of tests confirming that those who pass have high school-level academic skills. Since it debuted in 1942, more than 18 million adults have taken the test, according to the GED testing site.

Jake Metcalfe, the business manager for the state Public Safety Employees Association, told the Empire that although Blumer has experience with public employee unions, the fact that she doesn't have a traditional diploma concerns him.

"So when I hear there's a GED it makes me wonder what the qualifications are for the job," he told the Empire.

Some will remember Metcalfe as the former president of the Alaska Democratic Party. Others may recall how, when he ran against fellow Democrat Ethan Berkowitz to unseat Rep. Don Young in 2008, his campaign made up bogus websites featuring Berkowitz as a gay, rich, overly educated California liberal. 

Parnell "rejects" the notion that "because Dianne Blumer has a GED that somehow she is not qualified to be a commissioner when she meets the statutory criteria for a commissioner and she has more relevant work experience in the field," his spokeswoman, Sharon Leighow, said in an email.

But back to that supposedly inferior GED. 

Leighow might have pointed out that there are many GED holders among the leaders in their fields, including Roger Moore, Vidal Sassoon, Alaskan Red Boucher, Jerry Lewis, Richard Pryor, Peter Jennings, Frank Sinatra and Michael Caine. Former governors of Delaware and New Jersey have GEDs. President George W. Bush's Surgeon General Richard Henry Carmona has a GED. (Full disclosure: I have GED, as does my brother and one of my sisters. All three of us went on to receive graduate degrees.)

It should also be pointed out that if Blumer took her GED in Alaska now, she would not qualify to receive Parnell's performance scholarship. Many in the Alaska Legislature wanted to offer the scholarship to those who had completed a GED and who took other steps, like taking AP classes, to prove their academic aspirations.

Parnell wouldn't budge, and apparently the fact that his commissioner of labor wouldn't qualify for the scholarship hasn't schooled him.

In an email, he repeated that the scholarship "is about incentivizing more kids to stay in high school and take more rigorous coursework than the minimum graduation requirements." 

Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, fought to include GED recipients as potential scholarship recipients. "People have to understand that not everyone comes from a beautiful wealthy happy together family," Gara said. "Why give a merit scholarship for a C student from a good family but not a GED taker who tests high and takes the right courses?" he asked.

Some do better if they stay in high school. Some need to leave school to work to achieve success -- like becoming the commissioner for Alaska's Department of Labor and Workforce Development. After, that is, they go back to school to get a college degree. 

Contact Amanda Coyne at Amanda@alaskadispatch.com