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With school budgets tight, let’s focus on what matters

  • Author: Ben Walker
    | Opinion
  • Updated: August 20
  • Published August 20

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On Monday, nearly 50,000 Anchorage School District students walked through school doors full of hope for the year and with backpacks of school supplies. If you've been back-to-school shopping, you know it involves choices about what is vital and what is luxury spending. One might purchase a generic binder over one with a movie character or standard colored pencils over twistable. We have choices to make when it comes to how we spend our money, especially in times of tight budgets, and these choices expose our priorities. This is true of families as well as the Anchorage School District.

Also on Monday, 3,300 education experts, including teachers, counselors, librarians, nurses, and psychologists, with thousands of years of education and experience in teaching and learning, walked through those same doors to work without a contract for the second year in a row. They walked through those doors making less in adjusted dollars than they may have seven or eight years ago. They walked through those doors, once again, being asked to do more with less and for less. What does this say about our own priorities?

A back-to-school supply list for education would have, in order, students at number one and, tied for number one, would be educators. And that's the end of the list. Everything else, from paper and pencils to school boards and superintendents, is to support the learning happening due to the relationship between student and educator.

We have heard the terms "budget problem" and "fiscal crisis" for years, and we do have limited funds. ASD faces fiscally constrained times with flat funding and increased costs. (I will pause to credit this past Legislature for incrementally increasing and forward funding education. Thank you.) However, within these constraints, we have choices that reflect our priorities. As an expert on teaching and learning, I say we don't have a "budget problem," but a priority problem. We don't have a fiscal crisis, we have a choice crisis.

We are choosing programs over people and consultants over classrooms. Every million dollars ASD sends to for-profit companies or consultants rather than using the 3,300 experts it employs equals 10 adults that could be building relationships with students. In recent times, hundreds of classroom positions have been cut, class sizes have increased, course offerings have been limited, and this year middle school was terminated. After spending untold millions to build schools based on the middle school model and develop our own education experts to implement it, it was eliminated with no public discussion.

At the same time, millions were given to the educational industrial complex of for-profit companies, testing services and "expert" consultants. We have chosen data and programs over the health and hopes of our children and the experts who teach them. In the last two years, while educators were told there is no money for wages to keep up with inflation, millions of dollars were spent to start new programs. Are there valuable programs that increase student learning? Of course. Should they have priority over people? Absolutely not.

We must ask ourselves, what kind of citizens, employees, parents and leaders of tomorrow do we wish to cultivate? Ones an outside company tests as proficient in reading or math at the same time? Or ones that can approach, work through and solve the complex problems of our time with perseverance, creativity, innovation and empathy?

While we may not know what opportunities exist in the unwritten lives of our children, we do know the skills needed to succeed in a changing and increasingly global world are not measureable by tests, reportable by data, or teachable by programs. These include collaboration, communication, empathy, problem solving, critical thinking, cultural competence, and multilingualism. Yet we continue to spend our limited resources on programs developed by consultants and companies that at best limit student choice, creativity and relevancy and, at worst, have students working lock step, day after day.

These "one size fits all" programs aimed at moving the data needle erode the personal relationship between teacher and student. When we have every student marching through a program based on scripts for the teacher to read and clickers to keep students on pace, we lose the fundamental core of education since the beginning of time, that of a personal connection to learning. "One size fits all" most often means nobody gets what they need.

On Monday, students and educators walked through those doors together to mark another year on our journey of learning. This journey is the bedrock of a thriving free society and those who guide, educators, are responsible for developing our most precious resource. We as society have to ask ourselves, are both students and educators getting what they deserve or are they losing out to luxury purchases?

Ben Walker is a National Board Certified science teacher at Romig Junior High in Anchorage and the 2018 Alaska State Teacher of the Year. He is the 2013 Alaska Science Awardee for the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching and a proud parent of two children enrolled in their neighborhood public school.

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