By Andi Story
Let’s be clear: education is an economic issue and Alaska’s failure to predictably and timely fund this constitutional responsibility is undercutting our economic growth and strength.
What’s happening at the legislative level is not helping. Children and their education are once again being pitted against the size of the dividend as the Governor, House, and Senate debate over how much to spend by the end of session. This is not right. Education is the pipeline to building our workforce, whether children are in their neighborhood, charter, correspondence or home schools. Talk of a one-time temporary funding bump just perpetuates the roller-coaster of uncertainty for children and their families. What is needed is an increase to the base student allocation, which is reoccurring and prioritizes our children’s future.
In the eight years since our children’s base student allocation amount was last adjusted by the legislature, inflation soared beyond 20 percent and cut into school districts’ budgets. (All we have to do is look at our own fuel bills, right?) As we’ve been starkly reminded by the fallout from COVID, teaching and learning happen best in-person and are intensely human processes. Districts have little control over funding. That’s up to the federal government (where funds go to targeted specific areas), state funding, and where possible, local communities. When the cost of fuel, insurance and supplies skyrocket, something’s got to go. And it’s usually people – who support our kids: art teachers, janitors, reading specialists, PE instructors, music teachers, special education aides, sports teams, and then, your child’s classroom teacher. Remaining teachers thus have more kids in each class, meaning your child gets less attention and help. Can you imagine one person trying to teach reading to 27 rambunctious five-year-olds, each at different levels of readiness?
Imagine a prospective business or family considering looking to settle in Alaska. Surely economic stability and predictability are at the top of the checklist. For families with children, good schools are paramount. But that’s not what they’d find when googling Alaska headlines.
Imagine being a new teacher. We have high cost-of-living, housing is tight and no guaranteed pension to entice you to keep your talents and experience in Alaska. Then, in spring, you get a pink slip. That’s when your district is required to give you a contract or, if they can’t do that (because funding is uncertain), a pink slip, even if there’s a chance you’ll get called back later. Why stay? Teachers are in demand all over the country.
Imagine you’re a student aiming for college or joining the ranks of Alaska’s essential trades. That AP class or hands-on construction class you signed up for last spring? They’ve been canceled. And your English class? It has 32 kids in it. Maybe you won’t be ready for the work force after all.
Imagine being an administrator committed to improving student outcomes in reading. Ongoing professional development for your staff is essential. But that money is gone because your school board was desperate to preserve teaching positions with manageable class sizes and keeping the heat on.
These scenarios are a harsh reality in communities across the state. Not only do districts need a boost, they need to know they can count on a predictable, timely state funding policy. A limited one-time legislative deal is a temporary stopgap, a finger-in-the-dike move.
If we care about growing Alaska, stopping our many-year population slide and improving student achievement, let’s assure reliable support to strengthen student learning, provide for ongoing teacher training, and to prepare young men and women to contribute to our economy. It’s what communities, businesses and families want – and deserve.
Representative Andi Story, representing House District 3, is in her third legislative term following 15 years on the Juneau Board of Education (and over 20 years as a parent volunteer).