School choice is the most democratic way to fund education

It’s no secret that Alaska’s educational system leaves much to be desired. We’re in the lowest five states for standardized test scores but in the top five states for the amount we spend on education. Something is not adding up. It’s not fair to point the blame on teachers, administrators, or even school board members. There is something in our system that is fundamentally flawed, and it’s time to look for more innovative strategies to better serve Alaska students.

Our lack of performance isn’t a lack of concern for our children, but at some point we have to realize our funding strategies aren’t producing the results we need. Our current funding formula is complicated and often prioritizes schools over students. Consider the “Hold Harmless” provision. The concept is that if a school loses more than 5% of its students, the school will continue to receive funding for 75% of those lost students. What incentive does any business have to retain customers if they are rewarded for losing 5% or more of those customers? This begs the question: Who should schools really be accountable to — administrators and school boards, or the families using their services?

During 2020, we faced shutdowns and schools scrambled to shift to online platforms. At the same time, the curtain was pulled back on what happens in classrooms. Some parents were surprised at the content that was or was not being taught. Some began to feel alienated because of their religious or political viewpoints. They began to think outside the box and realize there’s more than one way to educate kids. Microschools and other alternatives began popping up to fill learning gaps.

Today, our public schools are the apex of a cultural, ideological wrestling match. The National School Board Association recently referred to parents with different political viewpoints as “domestic terrorists.” This isn’t the first time government has tried to dominate the choices parents have in the education of their children. In the 1800s, the anti-Catholic majority sanctioned laws that prohibited the funding of parochial schools — targeting Catholic schools. These laws are also known as “Blaine amendments.” Catholic parents were faced with the choice of schooling their children according to their beliefs or getting free education in Protestant-run public schools. Talk to parents today and you’ll find that they are facing something similar — many feel strong-armed into ideologies and practices that go against their deeply-held convictions.

Parents are now waking up to the realization that education is one of our most fundamental exercises of democracy. In this millennium, we are no longer preparing students for factory work as when public schools were first created. We are preparing them for a world with diversity of culture and thought. Instead of engaging in an ideological wrestling match, why not encourage diversity through various public and private local entities that are already offering high-quality educational services?

In 2020, the Supreme Court overturned the “Blaine amendments” in the landmark Espinoza v. Montana decision. It was determined that if government funds subsidized private institutions, it couldn’t withhold these funds from a school just because that school is religious. Shouldn’t all families feel supported to attend schools where their values are respected and where their particular students can thrive? Public or private, religious or not, parents should be the ultimate accountability for schools and funding should prioritize children over systems.

January 23 through 29 is National School Choice Week. This week, parents, administrators, and public officials from across Alaska are coming together to celebrate our freedom to choose the best, most effective strategies for increasing educational outcomes for our children. Join us as we work together toward better educational solutions for all Alaska families.


Leigh Sloan is a podcaster, former public school educator and parent in Anchorage, Alaska.

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