The Anchorage School District announcement of its proposed closure of six elementary schools next year is just the latest in a long series of downturns in public education in Alaska and across the country. As James Brooks and Lisa Phu reported in their extensive Alaska Beacon analysis of Alaska schools’ troubles over the past decade, state funding is not keeping up with the need. It’s not a function of declining enrollment, caused partly by outmigration, though that isn’t helping. State funding has been steadily falling for years. The base student allocation, the formula used for state funding, hasn’t changed in six years. Flat funding is decreased funding because inflation and rising costs for staff and material infrastructure take larger chunks of a flat-line budget. And most school funding comes from the state.
Writing in the Washington Post recently, columnist Hugh Hewitt noted that three major issues seem to be driving informed voters toward the right in the upcoming November election: inflation, declining education performance, and increased crossings at the southern border. Education is in some ways the most interesting of these. In nearly all states, reading and math scores have declined. Phu reported last week that in Alaska, reading scores held steady over the last three years while math scores declined. Reading scores among low-income students declined.
Most analysts attribute declining school performance to the disruption in school attendance caused by the pandemic; too many students spent too much taking classes remotely. Internet class performance lags behind person-to-person teaching and learning at all levels of education, from elementary school to college. When students do return to class, larger class sizes, partly a result of having too few teachers, diminishes learning.
For those who have not taught, understanding what goes on in a school classroom can be a mystery. One thing is quite clear, however: Lower teacher/student ratios generate better student performance. Particularly in basic reading and math, the more individual attention students receive, the more they learn. And the more they learn, the better their chances of long-term success as learners and, ultimately, as earners.
One of the most important aspects of classroom teaching is the spontaneity of teacher/student interaction. Both teacher and student instantly see and register nuances in speech, expression and demeanor which convey approval or disapproval or puzzlement, emphasis and encouragement. This is distinct from verbal communication, which is equally important. The same phenomenon obtains in business and government. There, face to face encounters are regarded as necessary components of any enterprise; they’re just as essential in teaching. Imagine, then, how diminished teaching is when the number of students being faced by a teacher increases. And imagine how significant it is that a teacher “hits it off” with a particular student, or conversely, “just doesn’t click” with a student. Increased class size, or lack of class time at all, reduces or eliminates this critical aspect of teaching. And increased class size is one of the results of inadequate, declining funding.
Republicans in the state Legislature have said they won’t change the basic student allocation formula until they see better school performance. This sounds a bit like the quip wrongly attributed to Einstein: Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is insanity. Better school performance will be a consequence of reducing the number of students a teacher faces in a classroom, budgets that will allow hiring additional teachers, and also restoring a defined benefit retirement system instead of maintaining the current defined contribution system which drives teachers out of Alaska and discourages potential recruits from even applying, another significant step legislators could take to help a system which is sorely afflicted.
Virtually every candidate for election professes support for education. But actions speak louder than words. From whom can we expect real support for education? Not from a governor who cuts the university budget by 40% over a three-year period. Not from legislators who refuse to increase the basic student allocation ever enough to keep pace with inflation. Not from legislators who refuse to address the teachers’ retirement system.
If children are our most important resource, and education is essential to their future, as so many so easily proclaim, we as citizens and voters have a right to expect actions that conform to those assertions. Our votes should go to those who are willing to put money and serious planning behind their words. Before we vote, we should ask them all.
Stephen Haycox is a professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
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