OPINION: Education’s value to Alaska can’t be overstated

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With its substantial wealth compared to many other states, Alaska should not now, or ever, impose “flat funding” or severe budget cuts to public education — the most important pillar in the foundation and structure of our society.

With all of the recent buzz about an Alaska constitutional convention, perhaps we might revisit what our state’s constitution says about it in Article 7 (Health, Education and Welfare), Section 1 (Public Education):

“The legislature shall by general law establish and maintain a system of public schools open to all children of the State, and may provide for other public educational institutions. Schools and institutions so established shall be free from sectarian control. No money shall be paid from public funds for the direct benefit of any religious or other private educational institution.”

If our state population decreases and school enrollments drop, it’s logical that we should optimize use of existing infrastructure and resources. This might require closing and repurposing some schools, consolidating and shuffling students to others.

But in recent years, draconian cuts to Alaska education budgets and programs — from K-12 to secondary education (University of Alaska) — have been disastrous, significantly affecting our future; our ability to create and maintain a robust, sustainable economy and decent standard of living for our population.

I’m married to a long-term Alaska teacher — retired — and have seen firsthand the remarkable and enduring value education brings to students. I prefer to broaden the definition of “teaching” to include “mentoring,” which in my opinion is the most crucial aspect of a teacher’s relationship with a student.

While teaching imparts knowledge of different subjects and their relationships as well as problem-solving skills, mentoring deals more personally with students. It shows them how to apply learnings to their particular strengths and aspirations. Mentoring isn’t an easy task, especially in large classrooms. Yet I know of teachers who in addition to all of their other duties, do their best in this regard — and they do it with no defined retirement benefit or social security.

I’ve been around a long time and have witnessed the power of mentoring from parents; classroom teachers; within sports programs; the military; organizations like Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts; Junior Achievement; Big Brothers, Big Sisters; and in the workplace.

Over several years of involvement with Boy Scouts, for example, I was continually impressed by how young troop members matured and quickly mastered a wide range of skills, including camping safety in subzero weather. Year after year I watched their self-confidence grow. Their interpersonal relations also improved, not only with other troop members, but with the adult leaders. A main conclusion reached during my involvement: Most of them were headed in the right direction to do well in life.

In my experience I have been fortunate to have several mentors that include my parents, sister, wife, teachers, professors, friends and work supervisors. Some of my important mentors are no longer alive. I thanked all of them when they were here, but certainly not enough.

I believe education is not just one of the tools to make Alaska and America a better place. It is the most important tool in the entire box. I’m not alone when I say that every public school in every locality in every state should be provided the resources to be as good as the best school. Do we want to sit back as countries like China take pre-eminence in the global economy? Instead, do we want to keep adding police and expanding our criminal justice system? Building more prisons?

In our increasingly competitive world, education inequality is not an option. Whether it’s formal education or vocational education/training, it’s imperative that we equip folks for the 21st century’s tough challenges. We are deluding ourselves if we don’t recognize some of those challenges have already arrived, and that they will become even more formidable.

I’ve seen what young minds can do. Years ago, when I was a temporary employee with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, I saw a boy about 14 years old tear apart a 30-horsepower outboard motor to make a repair. He had no manual. Parts were strewn all over the dock. It took him hours, but he put it all back together and started it on the first pull.

We have raw intelligence like this all around us that needs to be nurtured. We have many festering, unresolved issues. But I believe educating as many people possible as best as possible will go a long way toward solving those issues. And, it will take us farther than we can imagine.

Unfortunately, secondary education and/or vocational and other specialized training that are needed in today’s competitive workplace are too costly for the average family. Only students from wealthy families, or extremely bright students who can secure scholarships, receive this critically needed schooling.

Upgrading and reforming public education for the 21st century in Alaska and the rest of the nation certainly comes with a big price tag. The colossal elephant in the room: Who would pay for this? The answer is obvious: All of us. But it’s not a bill. It’s an investment.

Frank E. Baker is an Alaskan since 1946 and a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River.

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Frank Baker

Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River.