For the second year in a row, I find myself having to go to our state capitol in Juneau as a citizen concerned with the lack of funding for Alaska's schools. After spending five weeks there last year along with many others, I was so shell-shocked that it took months before I could comfortably share stories with curious friends.
While I found many in the Capitol building to be professional, there were also many who were not. I was cursed at, laughed at, ridiculed and even witnessed my letter to a legislator (which took hours to write) get thrown into the waste basket without so much as a glance. Why? It seems many in Juneau do not want bystanders getting in the way of their plans by reporting back to parents and community members and responding to reporters in plain language, describing what the bill in its current form really means to schools and communities.
This year, more than last year, legislators are facing a very challenging problem with regard to the budget. Their primary challenge is fairly simple. They must not panic and lose sight of their stated values and individual judgment. As a state, we are just beginning to grapple with the implications of the fiscal crisis and wrestle with the options available to us. Legislators know they cannot fix the crisis through budget cuts alone, so they must not let anyone take advantage of the crisis to make cuts that are unwise.
Along with others from Great Alaska Schools, we will be focusing our time on those legislators who can see through the careening rush to cut everything, and who recognize the damage that the currently proposed education cuts will do, not only to innocent young lives, but also to our economy as a whole. As a state and as a society we have an obligation to provide a quality education to every child.
There are three major issues being rushed through that bring me to Juneau:
One, legislators must keep the promise made last year in the education billed passed in the extended session, the three year package, modest, but at least stable. The governor proposed to cut $32 million of those promised funds and the Legislature kept those cuts and added to them. These funds should be restored to the education budget.
Two, the absolutely draconian crazy cuts made by the Senate cutting an additional $47.6 million. This will cost Anchorage alone about 300 positions and many more in other districts. How will that affect our economy? And if this move is a political ploy to have more negotiation leverage, as Sen. Pete Kelly stated, all the more reason to follow this. Apparently behind closed doors the plan will be to try to pull out other favors from the legislators who are needing to be convinced in order to get a special three-quarters vote to allow a dip into our savings during these tough times.
Three, we need to follow the removal of all forward funding for education. This is another extremely quiet move (without any public discussion) and basically if this stays in the bill, it means that this year's Legislature is draining the entire fund and dismantling the forward funding program entirely.
Level-headed legislators must not let the fiscal crisis silence them when they see bad decisions being made. Now is the time for strength and courage and vision. It is tragically shortsighted to cut the voluntary pre-K funding and parents-as-teachers funds. It is infuriatingly disingenuous to hear legislators say how this budget does not cut K-12 funds because it holds the "BSA foundation formula" harmless, when last year these same folks deliberately channeled funds "outside the BSA" and said that it was to get that money "into the classroom."
Education should be a budget priority, and be preserved even during times when the rest of the budget needs to be trimmed. However, the opposite seems to be playing out. General state government has been growing rapidly over the last five years, but not in the area of education. Education has not even been keeping up with inflation, so there have been cuts of positions throughout the state -- unlike other areas of government.
Those legislators who value education need to stand up, now, and say "Enough is enough," -- we will not pretend that we can balance the budget on the backs of our children. If legislators feel bullied by the caucus they are in, maybe it is time for a change because no matter how much you say you support education, to me it is all about how you voted and whether or not you affected making more opportunities for students in communities to succeed. Change will not happen if everyone keeps on doing things the same way.
If you would like to read in very plain-speak what is happening in Juneau to affect public education, please go to Great Alaska Schools' Facebook page or greatalaskaschools.com for our frequent postings from Juneau, as well as postings about what is going on in other communities by people wanting to make a difference for public education in Alaska.
Alyse Galvin is a founding member of Great Alaska Schools, a grass-roots organization formed in 2014 to campaign for sufficient school funding.