While I had many reasons to run for state office in 2016, three reasons stood above all others: Atticus, Vivienne, and Truman. Those are the names of my three kids, who will soon be in our public education system. Last year, because the Legislature didn't pass the annual budget early enough, pink slips went out to more than 200 Anchorage school teachers and staff. As a first-time legislator, this process was extremely disheartening, and I received hundreds of calls and letters from affected Alaskans sharing their concerns. It's through these stories I discovered three more reasons to support early funding for education: Chris, Grace, and Sam.
Chris has been a teacher for more than 30 years. A great one, in fact. I can say this because I was his student when I attended Dimond in the '90s. Last spring, Chris received word that while he wasn't pink-slipped, next year his class size would increase to 38 students. In all his years of teaching, he's never had class sizes so large, and can't help but question: is his job is even teaching anymore, or just student management? The way things are going, he's not sure he has more than one or two years of teaching left in him, which as a former student, breaks my heart. If Chris chooses to stop teaching, it will be our loss — a loss directly caused by the inaction of the Legislature, and a testament to its impact on qualified, caring, and experienced educators in our state.
Grace is a high school student in my district. She called my office because her favorite teacher received a pink slip, and she asked what she could do to help. She told me that Mr. Harrison inspired her love for science and that she couldn't understand why we would deny other students the same transformative experience. Grace understands the importance of great teachers, enough to give her state representative a call and plea for change. Mr. Harrison is one of those teachers that truly makes an impact, and our students deserve teachers like him in the classroom.
Sam is a new teacher, now in the middle of his third year. He and I are the same age. Like me, he has three young children and a mortgage. When Sam received his pink slip, he was worried about things like paying for daycare and health insurance for his children. But, as I've found typical of most educators, when he called my office his biggest worry was not his own livelihood, but for his students, and the continued quality of their education. Sam is an asset to the community, but one we could easily lose if we don't get our fiscal house in order, and soon.
As I've moved from neighborhood dad to representative dad, I see now more than ever how vital it is for the state to pass the annual operating budget in a timely manner. When we don't, it creates unnecessary financial and emotional challenges for school districts, teachers, parents, and students. School districts are required to issue layoff notices by May 15 for tenured teachers and by the last day of school for non-tenured teachers. If the cycle of laying off educators at the end of every school year continues, teacher vacancies will rise as our best and brightest leave the profession and the state for more stable careers.
Enough is enough. This cycle of uncertainty must end. And this legislative session, I believe we may have found a solution.
House Bill 287 and Senate Bill 131 are two pieces of legislation that take meaningful steps toward bringing confidence and stability back to our school districts, educators, and communities. In different ways, both bills aim to prioritize public education, allowing the Legislature to authorize education funding before any other operating budget is passed. This prioritization will make the budget process more efficient, limit pink slips, reduce the stress placed on educators, and provide districts the ability to develop realistic budgets based on accurate state funding levels. Taking the guesswork out would be a significant, positive change for both schools and students.
I am a proud co-sponsor of HB 287, along with 20 of my House colleagues. When combined with SB 131, these two innovative ideas could be just the solution our state needs right now. I hope you'll stand with me, Atticus, Vivienne, and Truman in supporting this bipartisan effort to raise the bar of our education system in Alaska.
Rep. Jason Grenn (I-Anchorage) is a fourth-generation Alaskan serving District 22 (Jewel Lake, Sand Lake, West Dimond and Kincaid areas) in the Alaska House of Representatives.
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