Editor’s note: This is the first of three columns this week from writer Charles Wohlforth on the theme of turning Alaska around and building a better future.
Tom Begich doesn’t have children, but when he retired from the state Senate this year, he had devoted much of his service to getting four-year-olds into school. I think he accomplished more to reverse Alaska’s decline than anyone else in government.
Over the columns of this three-part series, I will back up that statement, and not only because Tom is one of my oldest friends. Although I’m no longer a full-time resident, I spent most of my life here, and for the past decade have thought a lot about what’s wrong and the path to our state’s renewal.
Tom’s father, Nick Begich Sr., disappeared on a campaign flight while running for reelection to Congress in 1972, a few days before Tom’s 12th birthday. At Steller Secondary School, which opened in 1974, we used leftover stationary from the congressman’s office as scratch paper.
Tom Begich attended Bard College and Oxford University. As a student, he wrote a full-length biography of his late father. When he returned, he joined his family’s ongoing political project, helping make his younger brother, Mark, an Anchorage mayor and U.S. senator. Tom, almost effortlessly, was himself elected to the state Senate in 2016.
I don’t know anyone smarter than Tom Begich. Often, over the years, his complex political calculations have gone over my head — in legislative strategy, district reapportionment, polling and public opinion analysis. But despite his brains and knowledge, he’s also insistently idealistic and almost naively optimistic.
In my experience, politics most often brings out the worst in people. But after a lifetime of this work, Tom continues to expect people to do the right thing. And he continues to be shocked and disappointed by their selfishness and betrayals — as he was betrayed by friends this spring when struggling to pass his most important legacy, for pre-K, and then quit.
Begich began working almost a quarter-century ago to make state-funded, voluntary pre-K a basic part of Alaska public school education. He was part of a team that sued the state on behalf of struggling rural school districts, with attorney Howard Trickey and education leader Spike Jorgensen. They brought in Stanford University education expert Linda Darling-Hammond to testify.
“She was the one who taught me more about pre-K than anybody else,” Begich recalled. “She led me to all the basic original research, the Perry pre-K study, everything else that we eventually built the pre-K bills on a decade later.”
The Perry Preschool Study had followed a large group of poor children in Ypsilanti, Michigan, beginning in 1962, half of whom were randomly assigned to receive quality pre-K instruction at age 3 and 4 and half of whom stayed home. The research found that the children who attended pre-K arrived in kindergarten better prepared and stayed academically ahead of the group who stayed home, all the way into their teens. They were far more likely to graduate high school and they got better jobs in their 20s.
By the time Darling-Hammond came to Alaska, those Ypsilanti children were in their 40s. The study still followed them. Members of the pre-K group now were far more likely to own a home and have savings in the bank, and to lead their own stable family, caring for their own kids. They used fewer social services and were less likely to have been arrested. By then, society had saved an average of $245,000 on each child who started school at 3 instead of at 5.
It’s not magic. Quality pre-K prepares kids for school and school success determines who makes it in our society — and the quality of society itself.
In 2010, Begich recruited me to work with the districts and help settle the lawsuit. The settlement added pre-K to the 40 lowest-preforming schools in Alaska, but for only a few years. After that, we hoped a record of success would persuade the Legislature to continue and expand the program.
State research did show a boost in kids’ learning, just as has happened everywhere else. But continued state funding was difficult and unpredictable. That was a major reason Begich decided to run for the senate. He became a leader and used his power to protect and then increase money for pre-K.
“The bottom line, if they wanted my vote on the budget, they couldn’t mess with the pre-K funding, period,” he said. “And they knew that.”
Begich also helped add money to public education generally, but Gov. Mike Dunleavy vetoed those funds, helping drive schools into the funding crisis they face today. But in late 2019, Begich and Dunleavy began working together, crafting a multi-point education bill that both could support. It included a phased increase of four-year-old pre-K, adding modestly to the program for six years until every family in Alaska becomes eligible.
I admire Begich, an old-fashioned liberal, for being able to work with Dunleavy, a Donald Trump Republican whose ideological core, like Trump, seems to be his own desire for power.
Begich got the so-called Alaska Reads Act through the Republican-controlled Senate by a unanimous vote. Ironically, the trouble he ran into came from Democrats in the House, often with objections he considered ill-informed or disingenuous.
“‘I don’t want to give the governor a win.’ I heard that twice,” Begich said. “‘I don’t want to give the governor a win.’ The win was for kids. It was never for the governor.”
After a complex set of last-minute maneuvers — how else does the Alaska Legislature ever make decisions? — the bill passed the House by a single vote, with most of Begich’s longtime friends and allies in opposition.
He told me about that over Memorial Day weekend, when he stopped by my new East Coast home on a long road trip. We caught up next to a placid, wooded lake as he poured out the frustration and disappointment he felt about his colleagues. I toasted his success in passing a landmark bill, but his sense of betrayal had stolen the joy of the victory.
Swearing me to secrecy, Begich told me of his plan for a surprise retirement a few days later, after the election filing deadline. He was done.
The dysfunction of Alaska’s degraded political system came as no surprise to me. It is part of the state’s general decline, its shrinking population, seven-year economic malaise, and appalling social indicators, including violent crime, child sexual abuse, suicide, alcoholism, drug abuse, and homelessness, and its broken or collapsing institutions, for mental health, medicine, education and civic involvement.
Fifty years after big oil finds made Alaska the richest state, it has fallen to near last place on indicators of health, prosperity and hope. Universal pre-K could help address that, a generation from now.
If you doubt that, consider how things might have been different if we had made this investment when the oil first arrived, as I will imagine in my next column.
Charles Wohlforth was an Anchorage Daily News reporter from 1988 to 1992 and wrote a regular opinion column from 2015 until 2019. He served two terms on the Anchorage Assembly. He is the author of a dozen books about Alaska, science, history and the environment. More at wohlforth.com.
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