Last Saturday, the grass-roots organizations Great Alaska Schools Anchorage (GASA) and Students With a Voice (SWAV) held a wake to put the disappointing "Education Session" to rest. Hundreds of supporters filled the Anchorage Assembly Chambers to mourn the loss of "what-might-have-been" in this year's Legislative session in Juneau. A "coffin" was marched down the aisle by student pallbearers, and a eulogy was read.
"Why?" you ask. Because even though the Legislature was well aware of the funding needed to meet the basic needs of Alaska schools, they failed to provide it.
As a result, districts throughout Alaska are facing three more years of cutting teachers. The math was fairly simple for the Legislature -- to get back to the funding level when our schools were healthy, we needed an increase in the base student allocation (BSA) of $400 this year and scheduled increases of $125 in each of the next two years. Instead, the Legislature provided BSA increases of $150, $50 and $50. And even if you throw in the other funding they provided, it was only the equivalent BSA increase of $220, $8 and $0 over the next three years.
Since 2011, schools across Alaska have lost hundreds of teaching and other positions. These cuts occurred because the BSA was not adjusted to cover inflation. School districts were forced to cut deeper and deeper into the classroom. This year there was little else left to cut after three years of flat funding. Parents and community members, most of whom had not been involved in this issue previously, met and formed GASA in January and joined the statewide Great Alaska Schools coalition to say "Enough!"
Great Alaska Schools members then researched the issues, talked with school administrators and legislators, learned all we could about how schools are funded: the BSA, the foundation formula, legislative grants, etc. We found that there were a lot of interest groups in the education funding trenches, but there wasn't a reliable source of clear, accurate, no-spin and useful information about the education funding debate. So we took on that role.
We held rallies, posted on Facebook, tweeted, attended PTA/PTO meetings, held informational meetings and took our petitions to school events, community events and grocery stores. We went door to door talking with constituents of key legislators. And we put in our time in Juneau -- sitting in committee rooms, grabbing proposed amendments and quickly analyzing the new numbers to get the word out before the spinning could confuse the issue.
In the end, our efforts weren't enough to move the Legislature to fully fund Alaska's schools. Throughout Alaska, communities are now scrambling to respond to the Legislature's failure and to do what they can to preserve their local education system. In Anchorage, the Assembly has since filled a part of the remaining school budget gap, but a shortfall still remains and teachers will be lost next year.
The 2,500-plus families who are Great Alaska Schools are frustrated and angry about the Legislature's failure, and we aren't going away. We ended the "wake" last Saturday with an opportunity for hundreds of supporters to come up to the mike and share with everyone how they are going to channel their frustration and anger into change. People lined up to talk about their plans to become voter registrars, hold candidate forums and political debates, talk with neighbors and PTA members about the issues and many other ideas.
We needed to grieve this year's loss of possibilities for school improvement statewide but now we can move on, look to the future and together, as a strong and united group, turn our sadness and frustration into action. We will fight until each school district in Alaska has adequate funding that is stable and predictable over time. Once we accomplish that, then the focus can be on innovations that positively impact student outcomes.
This fight is not over, and it's not too late to get involved. Go to GreatAlaskaSchools.org, click to join and "like" Great Alaska Schools Anchorage on Facebook.
Alison Arians is a founding member of Great Alaska Schools -- Anchorage.
By ALISON ARIANS