I recently read an opinion piece published in the Anchorage Daily News titled, "Alaska, I'm breaking up with you." and while the tone set by the author does not mirror what I see every day in my classroom and my community, I must admit I could relate, because I too, am leaving Alaska.
I've dedicated my adult life to teaching. I've spent six wonderful years working as a middle school special education teacher in the Anchorage School District. I care deeply about the students I work with every day, their families, and the lives they will lead after they leave my classroom. I'm currently a Special Education Department Chair and achieved this position because of that dedication, but sadly, no matter how much of myself I pour into my students and my work, the rewards pale in comparison to the burdens placed on me and every other educator in Alaska.
I am not writing this expecting your sympathy. I've watched the debate around public education funding play out in Juneau, in op-eds, and on social media the entire time I've taught. I'm writing this to warn Alaskans that there is a storm brewing and we are about to see an exodus of young, talented, and committed educators from our state.
My husband and I are expecting our first child in September. This will change our lives in myriad ways, many of which are out of our control, but we sat down to look at what we could, and compared life and opportunities in Alaska with those of moving to the Lower 48. The contrast is striking.
As a teacher hired after 2006, I have no pension. I am enrolled in TRS Tier III which means I have a defined contribution retirement plan. Even with my contributions and planning, my financial advisor informed me that I would have less than half of what I need to retire comfortably by the time I'm 65. Couple this with the fact that Alaska teachers will receive no Social Security and Alaska looks like a very difficult place to want to continue teaching. Where we're moving I'll have a real retirement. After all, every other state in the country has a pension plan for their teachers.
Poorly researched news stories often appear in the national media portraying Alaska as a destination for teachers looking for a top-paying salary. At one point this may have been true, but when I signed my contract in another state teaching exactly what I'm teaching now, I'll be making nearly the same amount as I do in Alaska, and that is without carrying over all of my years of experience. The cost of living is a fraction of what it costs to live in Alaska and my caseload will be less than half of what teachers in the Anchorage School District are forced to endure.
Perhaps the most important reason we've decided to leave Alaska is for our future children. In my new position outside of Alaska I'll get 12 weeks of maternity leave that I can dedicate to caring for my new baby. My children will have access to free pre-kindergarten. They'll attend a school where class sizes are kept small so that teachers can spend time with students doing one-on-one instruction, rather than running crowd control.
This is one of the hardest decisions my husband and I have ever made. Unfortunately, it's been made easier by the fact that our state, and our school district have continued to cut positions, programs, and possibilities from our schools. I am fully aware that "flat funding" is not a cut when you look at it on paper, but ask any educator in almost any school in Alaska and they will tell you that costs keep rising and districts are being forced to eliminate teachers and support staff that make public education possible.
I'm not the first to leave, and I won't be the last. Alaska, you have a crisis on your hands and it won't get better until you reverse the damage and start seeing children and education as worthy of your time, effort and investment. My husband grew up in Alaska, and I know that this decision is going to be especially hard on him. We're going to miss our friends, our colleagues and the life we've built here. I'm going to miss this state, this city, my school, and the countless students I've helped teach. But tell me, when it comes to what's best for starting a new family, what decision you would make?
Brinna Langford is special education teacher from Eagle River. She's a former president of the Anchorage Education Association.