As someone who grew up in Hawaii’s lopsided education system, I am a dedicated superfan of public education in Alaska. Hawaii’s private schools dominate the educational ecosystem in the islands and the families enrolling their kids there spend tens of thousands of dollars on tuition each year. That’s life in Hawaii, where a large percentage of parents fork out big bucks to avoid sending their kids to public schools. The more Alaska legislators and the governor starve our public schools, the more we might look like Hawaii, where individual schools are world-class, but the education system is not.
Let’s say our state lawmakers continue to deprive Alaska’s public school system of much-needed funds. Eventually, families with means will look for other options. In Alaska, the most obvious alternatives are our private schools, most of which are Christian. As a 13-year attendee of a Christian private school in Hawaii, where we attended services nearly once a week and put on elaborate Christmas pageants, I don’t object to that educational approach. I loved my school — and I’m pretty sure I turned out great! But dear Lord, it’s all so expensive.
Here’s a sampling of tuition rates for one student at Hawaii’s private schools for the 2023-24 school year. You might want to sit down. Punahou School: $30,480. ‘Iolani School: $28,250. Seabury Hall: $22,290. So, sending two kids to school in Hawaii from kindergarten through 12th grade would cost about $1 million if you enrolled your first child this year. Parents work long hours and grandparents dip into their retirement savings to make these payments. Competition is fierce for jobs at these schools because employees qualify for free or discounted tuition. In addition to filling roles as faculty and staff, it’s not unusual for parents to work as janitors, cafeteria servers or campus security.
Alaska’s average private school tuitions are lower than Hawaii’s, but prices would naturally rise with demand should Alaska parents decide to leave the public schools for the private ones. New families would go from paying zero dollars for schooling to thousands. Families already enrolled in private schools would see their costs rise too. And the Permanent Fund dividend wouldn’t come close to making up the difference. Parents, say goodbye to your snowmachines, fat-tire bikes and other fancy Alaska toys, not to mention the annual family vacation to Maui!
Moreover, the Christian character and philosophies of Alaska’s private schools could very well change with an influx of new families. Hawaii private schools cherry-pick the best students in the state through selective admissions, boosting grades, scores and acceptances to prestigious universities above the rates at public schools. Their success attracts the general population and the schools, while rooted in Christian principles, are far more secular and attract a far more diverse student body than at their founding. Punahou, a top private school started by Christian missionaries, has reinterpreted its approach to Christianity as the religious beliefs and values of its student body have grown more diverse. President Barack Obama is a graduate, by the way. Alaska’s private schools could very well see similar changes with an influx of former public school families.
Speaking of Obama, Democratic-leaning states dominate the standings when it comes to the share of students in private schools. Of the top 10 states with the highest percentages of K-12 kids in private schools, nine of them, including the deep-blue District of Columbia, reliably vote for Democrats in national elections. Hawaii leads the pack, with 19% of its K-12 students in private schools, according to the Private School Review, an informational site on private education.
In Alaska, it’s Republicans who tend to advocate for strengthening private schools, while Democrats show stronger support for public schools. Whether each party is unwittingly working against its political interests is impossible to know. So, let’s stick to the financial argument: Living in Alaska is already expensive. Boosting education costs by squeezing our public schools would make it worse.
When I moved here from Hawaii nearly 20 years ago, I was thrilled to find out how profoundly Alaskans of all backgrounds are united in their love for my home state. Let’s also agree on this: It’s fine to bring back pineapples, coffee and sunburns from our visits to Hawaii, but let’s leave its education system behind.
Jeannette Lee is an Anchorage School District parent and former business reporter for The Associated Press and Anchorage Daily News.
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