By Walter Featherly. Featherly is an independent candidate for House District 11 in South Anchorage.
Alaska’s public schools deserve our support. In my conversations with voters, I have learned that many share my passion for excellent education. Like others, I believe that a well-functioning community and economy depend on good public education, from pre-K through post-secondary and from vocational training through graduate programs. In turn, public schools rely on the State Legislature to pass wise legislation and to provide adequate funding for educators to do their jobs.
The Alaska Reads Act is wise legislation. Passed by the current legislature with the support of the governor, the Act expands pre-K education and creates four new programs: an early education program, a reading intervention program, a school improvement reading program and a virtual education consortium.
Unfortunately, the Legislature did only half of its job—it failed to adequately increase the base student allocation (BSA), the formula used to calculate how much money each district will receive from the state to cover the cost of running schools, and it failed to reopen the state’s pension programs for teachers.
The Legislature last increased the BSA in 2017, and since then, inflation has reduced the amount of state funding for schools by more than 8%, even before accounting for the high rate of inflation Alaska and the nation is experiencing.
Some say Alaska’s public schools cost more than they should and that more state funding is not needed. Certainly, there are areas where schools could be more efficient and where funding could be shifted from administration to the classroom. But Alaska spends less than the national average on a per-pupil basis when adjusted for cost of living, even before accounting for the dramatically high costs in Alaska due to our woefully inadequate transportation, energy, and telecommunication infrastructure, both in Anchorage and the rest of the state.
Some say that the relatively poor performance of our schools is due to a lack of accountability and that funding increases should be tied to increases in accountability. Sadly, Alaska’s schools are performing at or near the bottom of the nation in standardized math and reading tests. But accountability is not the issue.
Alaska’s schools once rated much higher, and the fall in performance scores has followed the fall in funding and the elimination of teacher pensions. The Nation’s Report Card, published by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, tells the story. In 1996, Alaska’s fourth grade mathematics scores were above the national average, and they remained on par with the national average through 2007, the year following Alaska’s elimination of teacher pensions. By 2009, following years of underfunding of schools, both 4th grade reading and math scores had fallen significantly below the national average, and the gap has been steadily widening since.
Some say they first want to see improved performance from public schools before they are willing to increase education funding. But if we all agree that public education is underfunded, let’s start by agreeing to provide schools with the funding needed to improve student outcomes. Otherwise, it’s like saying, “the beatings will continue until morale improves.”
School districts, schools, and teachers have been through a lot, and they are accomplishing much with the limited resources and enormous challenges they face. There is no doubt that Alaska school boards and school administrators have made mistakes and could do better. In fact, some now acknowledge that it was wrong to close our schools during the pandemic. But these are exactly the reasons that educators need and deserve our support, now more than ever. Our children—along with our families and businesses—are depending upon us to provide it.
Sad that the State sent out a record-high PFD this year, costing more than $2.1 billion, but at the exact same time is forcing the State’s largest school system to shut down schools for lack of funding.
Alaskan voters are doing this to themselves. Nice to have a $3,454 PFD this year, but even nicer to have functioning schools and a functioning state ferry system and a functioning university.
Throwing money at the school system has not improved the students’ scores. A voucher system would allow parents to choose. Competition would be an incentive for improvement.