Alaska Editorials

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Here is a sampling of editorial opinions from Alaska newspapers:

March 9, 2014

Fairbanks Daily News-Miner: Education funding needs to rise

Gov. Sean Parnell, in his State of the State speech in January, proposed several major changes regarding K-12 schools and said he wanted the current session of the Legislature to become the "Education Session."

If that's the case, then this week can easily be called "Education Week."

The House Education Committee has hearings scheduled Monday through Friday this week on House Bill 278, the governor's education package.

The bill's highest-profile components include increasing the base student funding allocation; replacing the high school graduation exit exam with the ACT, SAT and WorkKeys tests; making it easier to establish a charter school; making changes to encourage more vocational training; and allowing students to "test out" of a class if they can demonstrate they already know the material.

The piece that most educators and local government officials are likely focused on is the first one: the proposed increase in per-student funding by the state.

And rightly so. The level of per-student funding hasn't changed since fiscal 2011, and school districts around the state, including Fairbanks, are hurting from the cuts they've been making as a result.

Gov. Parnell has proposed an increase of $85, to $5,765, per student for fiscal 2015, which starts July 1 of this year, followed by $58 per student in each of the following two years, for a total of $5,881 per student in fiscal 2017.

His Department of Education and Early Development calls it "a modest increase."

Gov. Parnell does get some credit for proposing the increase, but he appears to be doing it not because he believes it is needed. Rather, he seems to be using it to entice legislators to approve other components of the bill. The governor indicated as much in his State of the State speech: "If you are willing to join me in passing real education reform, I will work with you to authorize an increase in the base student allocation."

Whether that means the Legislature will have to pass all pieces of the bill isn't clear — yet.

What is clear, however, is that schools need additional funding regardless of whether any or all of the other items are approved. They actually could use more than what the governor has proposed.

Here at home in the Interior, the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District is looking at an $8 million shortfall for the coming fiscal year. Superintendent Pete Lewis says the district can handle it — by eliminating 50 or more regular classroom teachers. That would increase the average class size in grades one through three to 25.5 students from 24. We can't have that.

It is true that the governor's proposed increase for next year would have some positive effect. The Fairbanks district would only — only — have to lay off 40 teachers instead of 50 or more, according to Superintendent Lewis.

The governor and the superintendent are far apart in their assessment of what's needed. The superintendent thinks an increase of about $300 per student for the next fiscal year would be enough to prevent the massive layoffs in our district.

Some major movement is needed toward the superintendent's number.

Let's hope that the House Education Committee's members — there are none from the Interior — stand up in hearings this week and say that a larger increase is needed and that it shouldn't be tied to other changes in education.


March 8, 2014

Anchorage Daily News: Fund Alaska schools

Alaskans should make this a bipartisan issue in 2014: Stop the bleeding at our public schools.

Three years of inflation and increased costs in areas like transportation coupled with flat funding of the base student allocation have come to a head this year. Six Alaska school districts face serious budget shortfalls. Anchorage has taken a $23 million hit that has forced the layoffs for the next school year of 143 teachers, seven counselors and 50 other staffers.

And those cuts would have been deeper if the School Board hadn't voted to tap reserves to retain 16 teaching and three counseling positions.

You don't get a smarter, more capable Alaska by slashing teaching staffs, increasing stress and decreasing opportunities for students. You don't keep making progress toward a 90 percent graduation rate by cutting graduation counselors.

That's the reality Alaska schools are facing now.

That's the reality Alaska lawmakers need to change.

Local efforts to keep kids on track in schools and increase graduation rates have been successful. Great Alaska Schools, a grass-roots advocacy group formed in the last month to reverse the erosion in public school classrooms, points out that gains have been made in recent years, with graduation rates going up and dropout rates down. But with the cuts in the last three years — including graduation counselors — graduation progress has slowed and members fear a reversal in the dropout decline.

This doesn't make sense. It's as if one part of our local and state leadership — school officials, Anchorage Chamber of Commerce, business partners, parents — has been rowing hard to make things better, while the governor and lawmakers have been rowing in the other direction with de facto cuts in the funding that goes right to the classroom.

For example, lawmakers passed a bill several years ago that limits how much local taxpayers can contribute to public schools. Anchorage is at its local cap of about $192 million. Part of the reason for this is equity among school districts, so that kids in a poorer district won't suffer by contrast with a richer district. But another reason was to use state power to rein in local school budgets. And now districts are being squeezed from both sides — local limits and a base student allocation that hasn't kept up with the cost of living.

That doesn't square with the state's constitutional obligation to provide for the education of its children.

Now parents are pushing back against the squeeze. Great Alaska Schools is a parent-driven organization, and those parents are calling for a $404 increase in the base student allocation, the per-student amount the state sends to school districts. In Anchorage, that provides more than half of the schools' operating budget. Great Alaska Schools says that amount would offset the cuts inflicted since 2011. With passage, the Anchorage School District and others could recall their pink slips.

Gov. Sean Parnell has proposed modest increases in the base student allocation but nothing near what would be required to prevent teacher and counselor layoffs in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau and other districts. Again, this makes no sense. Half measures are better than none but they still shortchange students.

You cannot make Alaska communities stronger if you make our public schools weaker.

Our schools shouldn't get a blank check any more than any other public institution does. "It's for the children" shouldn't be an excuse to spend too much or ignore waste. Schools should always aim to make the most of every public dollar spent — and be accountable.

But the simple fact is that good education is expensive, and most expensive where learning happens — between teachers and students.

Whether it's $404 or some other amount, our lawmakers should figure it out and invest to keep our schools responsive to the demands of educating all of Alaska's children who come to their doors.

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