Alaska should take care to budget for strong schools

To all who care about public education in Alaska, it's time to turn our attention to Juneau. Alaska lawmakers have convened, and their decisions over the next three months will have important ramifications for the short- and long-term future of public education in Alaska. Lawmakers have one primary job this session -- to craft a state budget for fiscal year 2017 that closes an approximately $3.5 billion gap between projected revenues and projected spending. If they fail to close the gap and instead use our state savings to put off dealing with the problem, our savings will quickly evaporate and we will lose the opportunity for a reasoned approach. Standard & Poor's has already downgraded Alaska's bond rating, and has said they will downgrade it further if the Legislature fails to act responsibly. If they attempt to close the gap by gutting education -- always a tempting target -- they will harm and compromise Alaska's future.

Many education advocates and others believe that Gov. Bill Walker's budget proposal for FY 2017 is a solid blueprint that the Legislature should use as a starting point for addressing Alaska's budget gap. The governor's proposal is not perfect, but it is a serious effort to responsibly address the situation through a balanced mixture of budget cuts and new revenues. His proposal contains meaningful cuts along with new taxes from a variety of sources to spread responsibility for new revenue, and a plan to restructure the Permanent Fund into a sovereign wealth fund. This is a better approach than closing the gap solely through deep cuts to services and programs, as some legislative leaders advocate. Not only is it impossible to close the gap through cuts alone, but drastic cuts would eliminate essential services on which Alaskans rely and throw our state economy into a tailspin. By balancing spending cuts and new revenues, the governor is advocating an approach that will minimize the social and economic harm involved with adjusting to our new fiscal reality. Equally important, his approach -- new revenues along with cuts -- respects the people's will.

The governor's proposal avoids cuts to K-12 public education, preserving the very small increase to per-student funding ("base student allocation" or BSA) for public schools passed and promised by our Legislature two years ago. Small as it is, this increase is much needed. The education budget for the past five fiscal years has not kept up with rising costs. Our public schools are struggling to cope with this lack of adequate funding and, in truth, are overdue for a meaningful funding increase.

In Anchorage, a teacher hiring and retention crisis has begun to emerge, as teacher salaries and benefits are failing to keep up with national norms. Class sizes are growing as teaching positions are cut, and the teaching corps is becoming less experienced as older, more experienced teachers grow weary of the instability and leave the profession or the state. Because of cuts to counselor positions, many students no longer have access to the help they need to stay in school, to thrive and to graduate. In some rural communities, small schools are threatened with closure. These very real problems will only get worse with reduced funding. Keeping the scheduled BSA increase in place is at least a gesture in the right direction.

One unfortunate aspect of the governor's proposed education budget is his short-sighted elimination of funds for early-childhood education. The fastest period of brain development takes place in children's first five years of life. Those early years are critical for cognitive, social and behavioral development that builds the foundation for success in school and in life. Before the proposed cut, Alaska had allocated $2 million to provide pre-K programs, an amount that was already well below many other states. As now proposed, there is no state funding. At the same time, 42 percent (almost half) of Anchorage kindergartners test as lacking in readiness to begin school. Research by Nobel prizewinner James Heckman shows that every $1 invested in pre-K education results in savings of $7 that would otherwise be spent on special and remedial education, publicly financed health care and other social programs. In Alaska, the Institute for Social and Economic Research concluded in a 2009 study that expansion of pre-K programs would save the state $321 million through 2030. These statistics should be an inducement to expand, not to eliminate, programs for young children.

At about $1.4 billion, education funding is the single largest piece of the state budget pie, so it inevitably becomes a target for budget cutters. Education is expensive, especially in Alaska where everything is more expensive because of our remoteness, our climate and our diversity. But it is one of the most crucial investments any civilized society makes -- an investment in our children, their future and our collective future. At its essence, budgeting limited resources is always a matter of setting priorities. As President Franklin Roosevelt once said, "The school is the last expenditure upon which America should be willing to economize."

We hope our legislators will reflect on Roosevelt's wisdom as they tackle Alaska's urgent fiscal challenge. And we urge public education supporters to be in close touch with our representatives in Juneau during this critical legislative session.

Becca Bernard and Deena Mitchell are founding members of Great Alaska Schools Anchorage and parents of children in Anchorage public schools.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

Becca Bernard

Becca Bernard is a founding member of Great Alaska Schools.

Deena Mitchell

Deena Mitchell is a member of Great Alaska Schools.