Opinions

OPINION: What does it mean to be an ‘education’ candidate?

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As summer begins to unwind, Alaska families are inundated with two things: back-to-school sales and political ads. This year especially, with so many districts on the ballot due to redistricting, our mailboxes and airwaves are filled with promises, attacks, and different definitions of adjectives. Those with directly opposite records will both claim to be the “law and order” candidate or the “pro-business” candidate.

One such claim is the “education” candidate. But what does it really mean to be an “education” candidate? It’s not as simple as it sounds. For political purposes, education is an abstract idea every politician claims to support. As you look over the candidates in your district, please not only hold them accountable for their words, but also their actions, including those that at first sight don’t fall in the education arena. Education and all other facets of society are so deeply intertwined and interdependent, there are very few votes or stances a legislator makes that don’t influence the future of our state’s greatest resource: its future generations. So while items like funding may be more binary to determine a “pro-education” candidate, those around health care or equal rights may need more analysis.

While it would be unwieldy for me to analyze all candidates in terms of their status as a “pro-education” candidate, I will walk through the marquee election for Alaska’s next governor and this same process can be readily adapted into pointed questions to ask candidates as they knock on doors and hold town halls.

Let’s start with education funding. Even something as simple as dollars becomes more complex upon deeper analysis of impact. Gov. Mike Dunleavy and former Gov. Bill Walker have cut hundreds of millions of dollars in education funding from both K-12 and the university system through vetoes and indirectly by vetoing school bond debt reimbursement. Every dollar that a district has to pay for maintenance to ensure safe buildings is a dollar taken away from classrooms.

Conversely, as a legislator, Les Gara has supported not only fully funding education, but fixing systemic funding issues, including increasing the base student allocation (BSA) and tying it to inflation over one-time funding year after year, giving districts certainty in fiscal planning. Again, every dollar districts are forced to spend due to inflation is money taken directly from students. Les’ support also includes forward funding education to better align the fiscal planning calendar of districts with the legislative calendar and prevent unnecessary lay-offs and last minute changes. No other candidate has as strong a record of sustained support for education funding.

Gara also fully understands that the success of our students starts prior to kindergarten and continues well after graduation. He has supported legislation for universal pre-K, to give all kids a strong start, and supports a well funded university system to keep students in Alaska. He understands the importance of education in preventing the “brain drain” we continue to see as our youth leave Alaska for school and don’t return. In combination with many of the world class programs we have at our universities, helping all students afford an education here at home will provide for a thriving economy.

Students can not learn and succeed without having their basic needs met and any candidate claiming to support education and Alaska’s youth should start with supporting health care access. Gara has supported making sure our most vulnerable populations have access to care by voting to support Medicaid expansion and restoring the Denali Care income qualification to 200% of the poverty level. Meanwhile, Governor Dunleavy has cut and opted out of programs to expand health care access for all Alaskans, including our students. These basic health care needs are paramount to success in school. This also includes the fundamental right of women in Alaska to be in charge of their own health care decisions, including the right to choose. Our young female students have the right to make health care decisions for themselves and doing anything less than supporting a woman’s right to choose, is not supporting all students. Gara is the only candidate with a long and unwavering record on this.

Additionally, Gara has vocally and strongly supported equal rights, namely those of LBGTQ+ Alaskans, including our youth. Let me be clear, it becomes very difficult to succeed in school when your very humanity is under attack. This includes the right for all Alaskans to marry the one they love, something that only Gara has supported, and both Dunleavy and Walker have opposed when given the chance as governor. It includes not only policies, but harmful rhetoric around the identities of our youth. Dunleavy has continually aligned himself with individuals and groups who seek to strip our LBGTQ+ youth of their humanity. All students deserve to be the full version of themselves, especially in our schools, and any candidate that denies that, whether through law or rhetoric, is not an education candidate.

Finally, a “pro-education” candidate supports the professionals in our schools. Les has continually voted to cap class sizes at a reasonable level and pay for that change. Additionally, Les is the only candidate that has actively supported returning to a defined benefit retirement for educators, keeping strong teachers in Alaska and attracting teachers that stay in our communities. Alaska experiences over 20% annual teacher turnover, costing millions of already scarce funding. Les voted to keep the defined benefit program in 2006 and introduced a bill to return to it in 2009. As Governor, he will prioritize returning all defined contribution employees to a defined benefit in a way that has no increased cost to the state. Both Dunleavy and Walker have not actively supported this change when given the chance while in office. Les chose an expert in education as his running mate in Jessica Cook. Jessica will bring over 20 years of varied grade-level and classroom experience as a teacher to the Governor’s office, and help to shape policies that will directly improve outcomes for students. The last thing Alaska’s kids need is more reliance on outsiders and the educational-industrial complex of testing and curriculum companies, when we have thousands of experts who know the needs and challenges of our local communities.

So as the primary comes up on Aug. 16, please take a hard look at your local election when it comes to the “education” candidates. As with the governor’s race, once you get past the first few lines of a mailer, it becomes quite clear who truly supports our students’ futures and who is just talk. In the case of governor, there is only one ticket that gets the highest grade as “pro-education,” and that is Les Gara and Jessica Cook. Les and Jess support everything about education in our state, not only fully funded classrooms, but classrooms staffed with professional teachers supported with a defined benefit, classrooms filled with happy, healthy children getting the early start they need through pre-K, the continued health care they need, and the community support they deserve to realize their full humanity and grow into Alaska’s future. I hope in addition to supporting true “pro-education” candidates in your home district, you join me in supporting Les and Jessica and invest in our future.

Ben Walker is an NEA-Alaska member and the 2018 Alaska State Teacher of the Year.

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