Alaska’s public education system is in crisis and on the verge of collapse.
This past legislative session, we devoted a tremendous amount of time to hearing from Alaskans working in education and those who study successful education systems. The conclusion? Alaska has underfunded public education for more than a decade. We needed to act quickly to avoid irreparable harm to our current students and the state’s long-term economic growth. The alarm was widespread from teachers, school administrators, parents, kids themselves, and business leaders who fear losing generations of workers who no longer see Alaska as a good place to raise families.
Alaskans get it. Every poll shows an overwhelming majority of Alaskans support increased education funding.
And there is a budget surplus. So, what’s the hang-up?
Consistent expert testimony last session established that a $1,200 increase in the base student allocation (BSA) was needed to recover what had been lost to inflation. At the end of the legislative session, we reached a $680 compromise, less than half of the increase experts recommended. Then the governor vetoed half of the approved funds down to $340. Why?
Many Alaskans were shocked by the governor’s vetoes. We agreed to the compromise (which still left our schools underfunded) because compromise was necessary to meet the governor’s demands for a healthy Permanent Fund dividend, with no new revenue sources and no draw on our dwindling savings accounts. The governor often makes statements about improving Alaska’s literacy rates, but even now, months later, he has not explained his justification for the education funding vetoes.
This week, our House coalition met with more than a dozen superintendents from districts accounting for more than 80% of Alaska’s students to hear directly from Alaska’s school districts to better understand how they are coping with the current low level of funding. Every one of our questions was answered with candor and supporting data. Some of the answers were shocking, some not surprising but still heart-wrenching. But the overall message was clear: Our public schools remain in crisis, and the funding after the governor’s vetoes is still woefully inadequate.
Here’s some of what we heard:
• Rural districts are scrambling for dollars to pay for clean water, teacher housing, and student nutrition, and most schools class sizes are increasing.
• One district had 25% of its teaching positions unfilled.
• Districts are facing tough decisions to cut programs that have long existed for a well-rounded education, including sports, music, arts and languages.
• Alaska schools cannot compete in hiring teachers because of current pay scales and state retirement system.
• Rural districts are recruiting teachers from overseas. One district filled half of its staff positions in an exchange program with the Philippines, but that program is now threatened because the Philippine government has designated rural Alaska as an unsafe work environment.
One superintendent shared that he went to school in Palmer and his goal is to deliver an education close to his own experience, but found it impossible with today’s level of funding. I thought of my own four children and the difference they had in their public schools here. My oldest had a counselor in the school, art classes, a second language option, multiple options in higher science, and something called “life hacks,” where he learned practical skills — how to change a tire, balance a checkbook, and how a credit card works. Nine years later, my fourth child had none of these options at the very same school.
One superintendent had positive news with a troubling prediction. His district had experienced its highest graduation rates since 2001, a significant increase in students taking advanced classes, and more certifications earned by students in work-skill programs. But he cautioned these good-news numbers would disappear without the increase in the BSA that our House coalition had originally sought. Deep cuts will have consequences.
We wonder what our school districts would be like if these dedicated superintendents spent their time and energy on innovations in teaching and learning rather than groveling for dollars for diesel to cover heating this year, or applying for grants to boost internet bandwidth, or procuring buckets for leaky roofs, etc.
These conversations made it abundantly clear that the state is utterly failing to meet its obligation to provide an adequate public education to all its children. We must not expose the state to costly litigation. We must stop accepting the uninformed, false, and misleading anti-public education rhetoric.
What can the legislature do now to improve this dire situation?
The first and most direct option is to override the governor’s veto of education funding. This will take three-quarters of all members of the Legislature.
If a veto override does not occur, then we must quickly pass a supplemental budget to restore education funding for this year. This action would require a majority vote in the House and Senate and then the governor’s signature. This should be a fast-tracked item to help school districts who need to present their budget to their local government long before next school year.
In addition to either of the previous near-term actions, the legislature must also pass one of the BSA bills currently in process to provide certainty about future funding. This will require actions to move them out of committee, followed by majority votes of the House and Senate and signature of the governor.
Finally, the Legislature and governor must restore an attractive and meaningful retirement system for public school teachers.
The pathway is clear. The time is now to invest in Alaskans.
It’s time to pull on our boots. North to the future.
Alyse Galvin is the representative for Alaska House District 14 and is joined by the other members of the Alaska House Coalition: Jennie Armstrong, Ashley Carrick, Maxine Dibert, Zack Fields, Andrew Gray, Cliff Groh, Sara Hannan, Rebecca Himschoot, Andy Josephson, Donna Mears, Genevieve Mina, Dan Ortiz, Calvin Schrage, Andi Story and Louise Stutes.
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