OPINION: Alaska’s education funding model is broken

During the recent election season, I heard several Alaskan politicians state that they will only increase funding for public education if they see results — namely, on standardized tests. This line of reasoning is greatly flawed. Let’s compare it to how professional sports franchises build championship teams. Do teams only pay out large salaries once their players have won championships? No, they seek out the best in their sport and do whatever it takes to attract the most talented players. It’s why teams like the New York Yankees are constantly competitive.

I point this out because, as a teacher who has served the Anchorage School District for 16 years, I am gravely concerned about how our state is funding education. To paint a picture of what budget cuts have meant at Begich Middle School, the school I proudly work at, consider the following: In 2019, ASD’s budget covered 44 certificated staff at my school. This year, we were funded for 38. Simultaneously, federal Title I funds, designed for schools that have high percentages of students on free and reduced lunch, have diminished. We’ve had cuts to custodial staff, security, instructional coaches and paraprofessionals. This although our students are facing greater academic and mental health needs than has been seen in a generation following the COVID-19 pandemic.

Such cuts have had a tremendous impact on students and the teachers who serve them. First, safety can become an issue when there are 32 students in a classroom, which has become the new normal in many middle school classrooms. Even seasoned veterans will not see and hear everything that takes place in an overcrowded room. Secondly, academic needs have been even harder to manage. As pretty much every national study has reflected since the pandemic, learning loss occurred for most students during those two interrupted school years. The consequences were felt more significantly at underprivileged schools. The past two years, I’ve never had so many sixth graders arrive at school with such limited literacy skills, and again, without having paraprofessionals to pull out kids to provide support or even a more manageable number of students in the class, I cannot help these students. It’s frustrating for me, but I can’t imagine what it feels like for the students.

This model for educating our students is not sustainable. Our state will continue to see accelerated turnover for staff, further exacerbating the problems we have in our schools. We’re already seeing a workforce that is trending younger and less experienced as veteran teachers are retiring early or moving on to other professions.

As our newly elected legislators return to Juneau, I am hopeful that they can address two important things: First, the Base Student Allocation, or BSA, which has not been increased nor adjusted for inflation since 2017, must be increased. When one considers how greatly our daily expenses have increased during this same timeframe, it’s easy to understand what an impact flat funding has had on education. Increasing the BSA will mean schools can stay open, more appropriate class sizes, and better resources are provided to students. The second thing our state must address is a retirement system that includes a pension. Alaska is the only state that does not offer one, and to become competitive in recruiting and retaining quality teachers, it should be reinstated.

Now, I personally don’t think that our state needs to splurge on education the way that the Yankees do on their players. That’s not the Alaskan way. But we also shouldn’t pay for education like we’re the Toledo Mud Hens of baseball lore. Alaska’s kids deserve better.

Kevin Voss is a debate coach, teacher of 16 years, and 22-year Alaskan.

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