OPINION: Alaska can’t afford to spend this little on state services

Late last spring, I drove up the Alaska Highway and was struck by how many U-Haul trucks were traveling south. I waved and cheered them “good riddance” in the smug spirit of, “it wasn’t really home after all.” Of course, this was just a shallow reaction, but after 60 years in this state, it may be an emotionally safe way to cover up the truth — that there are good reasons to leave this great state, and we really need those energetic dreamers to keep our economy and spirits chugging.

The ADN recently ran an opinion piece (”Alaska has made progress towards righting its financial picture,” Jan. 20) explaining that our state’s financial outlook is in a relatively safe space. After years of cuts, we’ve finally reached a budget that’s affordable, somewhere in the $4.5 billion to $5 billion range, funded mostly by the Permanent Fund, not oil revenues, which have fallen over the decades to 16% of our budget’s needs. At first the piece was a relief, but then reality set in.

Our schools, and pretty much every other state entity, are hanging by a thread — without even looking at the giant deferred maintenance stacking up yearly. I spent 25 years in those schools, which not very long ago were some of the best in the world. Now they’re being threatened by make-believe culture wars and simplistic ideas from politicians who want easy answers to very complex problems.

The House Republicans’ emphasis on increased funding for homeschooling and correspondence schools decreases funding for on-site schools and completely misses the most essential lesson we learned from the pandemic: Children crave being together, especially in a structured environment with competent, well-trained professionals. And Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s support of charter schools is another hot-button option that can also be a crafty way to break down public schools and direct public money toward religious schools. Public funding of religious schools was banned under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment. Thomas Jefferson believed that the government’s support of religion violated liberty of conscience. We were the first country in the world to offer freedom of all religions, or none. The concept of public schools was radical and a model for the world, and still stands. Our culture needs a common thread, a place to share ideas, to debate and to learn to compromise with others from all walks of life. If we give that up, we lose what’s most precious in this country.

To that end, a long-term goal of a $5 billion budget funded by a draw of 5% on the Permanent Fund isn’t tenable, by any stretch of the imagination. This thinking completely ignores our obligations to our infrastructure, including our sophisticated educational system that’s crumbling around us. Our state’s Republican majority must adequately fund our schools this year with a healthy increase to the BSA. Anything less is irresponsible.

It’s a difficult truth to face, but Gov. Jay Hammond had it right when he regretted canceling our state tax system in the 1980s. We have to own up to the idea that we need to fund our systems adequately or we’ll continue to see U-Hauls full of young workers leaving in the spring, perhaps including our children. The last to leave will be those like me, who have no other concept of “home.” They won’t have that smug attitude, and no one will be waving goodbye.

Bob Barnwell was raised in Anchorage. He taught in Unalaska and Seward for 25 years, and another five years in Venezuela and Myanmar. He is retired and lives in Seward.

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