The Fairbanks daylight would have been fleeting on Dec. 15, 1955, with less than a week until the Territory of Alaska was to mark the winter solstice. But inside the newly built University of Alaska Student Union Building, members of the Constitutional Convention Committee on Preamble and Bill of Rights were working hard to establish a beacon of light for the future.
On that day, Committee “Chairman” Dorothy Awes — who, under her married name Haaland, later became the first woman admitted to the Alaska Bar Association, served as Alaska’s Attorney General, and was inducted into the Alaska Women’s Hall of Fame — recommended to Convention President William A. Egan that delegates should adopt the following article governing public education for a future state of Alaska: “The State shall establish and maintain by general law a system of public schools which shall be 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 institution.”
Ms. Awes and her fellow delegates knew that the Territory of Alaska had long supported dual systems for Bureau of Indian Affairs-funded schools, on one hand, and municipally and territorially-funded schools on the other. But roughly a decade after the passage of Alaska’s Equal Rights Act of 1945 and with statehood at hand, members of the convention envisioned something better: a single, well-maintained system of public education for all of Alaska’s students.
Shortly after the New Year, members of the Constitutional Committee on Style and Drafting — a group that included Victor Fischer, who today is Alaska’s last surviving delegate — reconvened to review the proposed education article. In boldly striking through the word “State” and replacing it with “legs,” short for Legislature, the Committee on Style and Drafting conveyed its explicit intention that “The legislature shall by general law establish and maintain a system of public schools open to all children of the State.” Fischer’s committee forwarded their revision to Egan for final consideration, and on Feb. 5, 1956, this language —enshrining a legislative mandate to provide for Alaska’s future — was adopted by the Constitutional Convention. Voters, in turn, soon followed suit and ensured that the Legislature’s responsibility for maintaining public education across Alaska would go into effect upon statehood.
The foresight of Ms. Awes Haaland, Mr. Fischer and their peers rings especially true today. The “Base Student Allocation” (BSA), or the per-student funding allotment which acts as the engine of Alaska’s Foundation Formula and, in turn, directs the majority of state spending on public schools, is not irreparably broken, but is in dire need of a tune-up. As has been widely reported, the 54 school districts serving families across Alaska are struggling under the burden of unchecked inflation eating away at spending power, persistent staffing shortages and a growing youth mental health crisis.
The Anchorage School District, currently burdened with $80 million less in purchasing power than it maintained during the 2016-17 school year, has long sought to honor the will of parents and educators by maintaining class sizes to support student academic achievement and encourage teacher retention, even as state funds have remained static. ASD’s judicious uses of federal aid over the past four budget cycles allocated more than $80 million toward maintaining pupil-to-teacher ratios and have allowed the district to continue to offer many of the educational options that families value, including language immersion programs, gifted education and extracurricular opportunities. These programs will remain safe for the 2023-24 year.
Unfortunately, absent passage of pending legislation such as House Bill 65 or Senate Bill 52, which would increase the BSA to account for inflation for the first time since August 2016, ASD — like other school boards across Alaska — will be able to offer little certainty to families in fiscal year 2025 and beyond. The magnitude of ASD’s deficit for the 2024-2025 school year is projected to be between $78 million and $85 million. This will increase to $91-105 million the year thereafter. If nothing changes by time ASD budgets for the 2026-27 school year, stagnant funding could mean the loss of 1,200 positions.
Such an austere future would not align with what Nenana Public Schools Student Body President Gloria Fredericks envisioned when she spoke to the Constitutional Convention on Jan. 13, 1956 and praised the vision spelled out by Ms. Awes, Mr. Fischer, and their colleagues: “your work here provide(s)” the “basis for our hopes of the future,” she observed. “The future will judge your work here, and we are part of that future.”
Ms. Fredericks saw the possibilities that the new constitution entailed, and she saw Alaska’s young people at the center of the state’s future. In that spirit, please consider reaching out to your legislators and urge them to honor the work of our entire constitutional delegation by adequately maintaining public education in Alaska. With half of the first session of the 33rd Alaska Legislature already recent history, much work remains to be done, and time is of the essence. We must rise above partisan attempts to delay, deflect, or deny this effort, which will only hinder our state’s ability to attract the families who will be central to long-term economic stability and support the children who are poised to become our state’s future workforce.
Victor Fischer has lived in Alaska for more than 70 years. He served as a territorial legislator, a delegate to Alaska’s constitutional convention, a state senator and the director of the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Institute for Social and Economic Research, and remains very supportive of public education.
Carl Jacobs has served as a licensed therapeutic foster parent to dozens of at-risk youth, including 12 ASD graduates, and is the vice president of the Anchorage School Board.
Kelly Lessens is a parent of two elementary students and serves as the Anchorage School Board Treasurer and Finance Committee chair.
Dora Wilson is a community organizer, therapeutic foster parent, and has volunteered in schools for more than two decades. She currently serves as the Anchorage School Board Secretary and Communications chair.
Remarks here by Jacobs, Lessens and Wilson are their own and do not speak for the Anchorage School Board as a whole.
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