OPINION: A devastating vote for rural schools

On Monday, the North Slope and Northwest Arctic Borough’s state representative, Thomas Baker, cast a deciding vote to kill a bipartisan education and broadband access bill (Senate Bill 140). This vote was simply devastating for schools on the North Slope and in the Northwest Arctic Borough. Our students and families deserve better — class sizes small enough for teachers to do their job, support for basic school functions from mental health support to career and technical education, and internet speeds sufficient to access learning materials.

Our region desperately needs the Legislature to pass and the governor to sign Broadband Assistance Grant legislation to access federal funds and provide internet for rural schools. On the North Slope and Northwest Arctic every school could have benefited from the passing of this legislation and absolutely needs broadband access. It would be tragic to extend fiber in the Arctic Ocean and improve microwave access to communities like Anaktuvuk Pass only to lose access because our own Representative voted against critical legislation.

On Wednesday, HB 193, Internet for Schools, a clean Broadband Assistance Grant bill, passed the House of Representatives, and I feel confident that the Senate will concur on Monday, but for HB 193 to become law, it will need the governor’s support.

In addition to broadband assistance, SB 140 would have finally provided funding for the implementation of the Alaska Reads Act. This bill would have turned the Reads Act from an unfunded mandate into a policy with real support from the state. Now that Baker helped to kill the bill; our district won’t receive any support for trying to help kids catch up and read at grade level. This is unacceptable, particularly because our communities have the opportunity to teach our children in both Inupiaq and English. Extensive data indicates that multilingual education and language immersion are beneficial for students and improve educational outcomes over time. However, learning two languages can be initially challenging, so Reads Act support would provide necessary funding for students working to achieve proficiency in English and Inupiaq.

One of the most important provisions of SB 140 was a $680 increase in the Base Student Allocation (BSA). This funding would have gone a long way to support classroom instruction. The BSA is the foundational element of our formula that funds our schools. Without an adequate BSA, it is impossible to maintain small class sizes, procure basic instructional materials, and provide adequate salaries and benefits for teachers. Over the past decade, our schools have endured a 20% cut in education funding, equivalent to a BSA loss of $1,413 per student. SB 140 would have reversed half the last decade’s education cuts. It was not adequate, but it was a positive step toward stabilizing school funding.

Baker’s vote virtually assured deep education cuts that make it improbable to adequately staff our schools or provide basic materials. As damaging as his vote is for the North Slope, it is even more devastating for the Northwest Arctic Borough, which does not have our property tax base from oil infrastructure. Additionally, while there are promises of a new bill, there are no assurances that a new bill will receive the bipartisan support for an increase in the BSA, leaving all districts asking for one-time funding that does not provide the stability necessary to truly address issues within our education systems to support our children.

By design, our government has a separation of power among the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government. These branches of government are not supposed to be subservient to one another but represent a balance of power that prevents tyranny and protects the voice of the people. Baker was appointed by the governor rather than voted in by his constituents; in voting to uphold Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s veto of SB 140, Thomas Baker made clear that he represents the person who put him in office and is not voting in the best interest of his constituents. This is unacceptable for our region, and I’m disappointed on behalf of my children and all the children across our region.


Robyn Burke lives and works in Utqiagvik, where she has substantial experience with K-12 schools and higher education. These are her personal statements and are not intended to represent the North Slope Borough School District Board of Education, for which she serves as President.

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