Members of a group of Alaska school superintendents exchanged glances but listened politely a decade ago in Juneau, as their luncheon speaker clumsily insulted them and their work with ignorant, disjointed comments and mangled grammar.
She was the chair of a legislative committee responsible for education funding.
You’ve heard some of these lines. “I won’t support more school funding until the schools produce better results.” Like saying you won’t tune up your car until it runs better.
Unfortunately, that legislator was not unusual. For years, voters have chosen a significant number who lacked the talent, character or preparation for the job. And, as a group, they failed to do the job, as the state drifted into ever-deeper crises while they fought childish partisan battles.
I’ve written before about how the lack of taxation breeds corruption and incompetence in government, a story repeated in Alaska and all over the world. But I don’t think this failure is only about the system. Many Alaska voters have gotten exactly what they wanted from their elected representatives.
From 2015 to 2021, state government depleted savings and starved services, including education, but paid Permanent Fund dividends. In 2022, when oil prices spiked, the Legislature returned to the old oil-boom script. It gave everyone $3,284 in free money. No one paid state taxes. And now schools are closing.
It’s still a winning platform. Gov. Mike Dunleavy was reelected on it this fall. His campaign sent me a mailer highlighting the size of the dividend check as his only listed accomplishment.
The state spent $2.2 billion on dividends this year, more than on anything else. More than on K-12 education and the University of Alaska combined.
Enough to fund the new pre-K program, for every four-year-old in the state, for a century.
Apparently, these are the priorities the majority of Alaskans want. Free money, no taxes, depressed economy, the nation’s highest rates of violent crime and rape, epidemic homelessness, collapsed mental health system, near the lowest school achievement, fewest young people going to college of any state.
Those who do leave for college often don’t come back. The population has been shrinking for years, as the brightest depart for better opportunities elsewhere and those who care most about free money stay and become a larger percentage of the whole.
How do we turn this around? Where is the path to renewal for Alaska, with hope in the future, growth, and the Alaska spirit of optimism and common cause that we old-timers remember?
Since oil arrived, the government has tried repeatedly to diversify the economy, with investments in agriculture, fish processing, rocketry, railroad tracks, tourism, air cargo, mining, and so on. But our largest employer and basic industry remains the federal government, as it has always been. There were some modest state-funded development successes — although perhaps none that wouldn’t have happened anyway, without state support — and there were many failures.
All these efforts had in common the expectation that the state could buy economic development rather than building it the hard way. That’s not how it has worked for the last 40 years in America.
Today’s thriving economies grew in jurisdictions that spent decades creating the conditions for innovation — most importantly, an educated workforce and dynamic universities, but also the qualities that make for a good life, such as safe streets and rewarding recreation and culture. Like plants in healthy soil, clusters of creativity and business creation grew in those places.
Low taxes and economic development giveaways might support a zinc mine or a delivery company’s airplane hangar, but not the knowledge work that multiplies wealth — such as the financiers who trade zinc or the coders who make delivery services obsolete. Remember when FedEx was all about overnight shipping of paper documents?
You can make more money with your mind than with your body. But Alaska’s leaders don’t seem to get that. They’re still obsessed with a gas line that will never be built, after decades and many hundreds of millions spent. Alaska bought oil leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but no one else wants them. And Dunleavy is even pursuing a new farming project in Nenana, following up on failed government agriculture projects in the first decade of the 1900s, the 1930s and the 1980s.
It’s discouraging that they keep making the same bad decisions over and over again. Because it doesn’t have to be this way.
Alaska has incredible assets for new start — to make new investments in people. The Alaska Permanent Fund can spin off generous earnings to support education, if the money isn’t given away instead. Alaska’s population has an ample ability to contribute, too, by ending the 42-year tax holiday that has continuously robbed the future. And we have the physical infrastructure — the Legislature did always pay for steel and concrete, if not teachers.
But one decisive and unavoidable change will be harder. Those making the decisions will have to change, too — the politicians and perhaps even the voters. And that may take a generation or more.
I stated, at the beginning of this series, that among the most important decisions to turn around Alaska’s decline would be Sen. Tom Begich’s long, ultimately successful effort to provide universal, voluntary pre-K education to Alaska’s children. Obviously, it will take a lot more, too, but this perhaps will be the powerful first step on that road.
We learn in preschool how to share and cooperate with others. Alaskans need that. And research shows that kids who get that kind of start become more productive adults, with greater chances of going to college, getting good jobs, owning homes and raising successful children. They contribute.
Pre-K alone is not enough. Alaska will still need great schools for those kids to grow in. And a great university for them to find their careers. And opportunities based on more than government giveaways to draw them back here to make a life.
But the people are the starting point. The children, their upbringing, the knowledge and creativity they develop, the confidence they gain — preparation that allows them to attempt things new and better than have ever been done before.
That’s the Alaska I dream of. But it remains distant, in the future and in the past.
In the past, I remember when Alaskans did think that way. Ambitious, adventurous young people came here for the opportunity to be part of something new and exciting.
I can imagine that in the future, too. Perhaps it will happen when today’s preschoolers become adults, if they are raised to see how much more Alaska can be than just a dividend.
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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