Ahead of last week’s forum in Kenai, Gov. Mike Dunleavy and his team sat down with Clarion reporters Brian Mazurek and Victoria Petersen to discuss his recently proposed budget, education, local industry, public safety and more. In the second part of this series, we look at the governor’s approach to education.
Increased class sizes, no more sports and the closure of several schools are just a handful of the steps the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District has said they might have to take to meet Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s proposed $300 million reductions to state funding for education. Should the governor’s proposed budget pass through the state Legislature, the district would face a $22.4 million cut.
Clarion reporter Victoria Petersen: Many residents are expressing concerns about education funding at town halls, assembly meetings and school board meetings, both at the K-12 level, and university level. Several teachers I’ve spoken to have mentioned they’re looking for other jobs out of state where they offer more attractive benefits and retirement, better salaries, et cetera. What can the state do to retain skilled teachers with these drastic cuts to education?
Dunleavy: So education is a local affair. This figure gives the 53 school districts monies for the budget. A lot of the decisions were made at the local level. In other words, how many administrators you’re going to have, what do you pay administration, what do you pay teachers, what are the health care benefits? These things are not necessarily controlled by the state or Juneau or myself or the Legislature. These are controlled by local school boards. Local school boards are going to have to make decisions as to where they allocate their money. We hope they allocate their money in the classroom for teachers, especially around the areas of reading and in mathematics. If they decide at the local level they want to spend money elsewhere, that’s a decision they’re making. We understand there is going to be reductions across the board. We understand it will impact school districts. I was a superintendent. I was a school board president in Mat-Su. We made decisions. Oftentimes when I was a superintendent and school board president, we got lower budgets. We were given less funding and we had to figure out ways to do our best to make sure that the classrooms — to the best of our ability — stay funded. We would reduce travel. We might reduce other activities, other programs. School districts can make a choice where they want to put their money.
Office of Budget and Management Director Donna Arduin: You’ve probably heard our statistics from the Census Bureau, that 54 percent of Alaska’s K-12 funding goes to the classroom, goes to instruction, which is a very poor number relative to the rest of the country.
Petersen: How much of that is due to Alaska’s high costs of travel, the high cost of fuel?
Dunleavy: You know, I think probably a certain segment, but certainly not almost 50 percent. That’s 50 percent overhead. Most of your administrative overhead in any program is 14, 16, 24 percent. That would seem high. When you’re almost at 40 plus, 47 percent, it’s kind of high. Those are decisions that again, school boards are making. We don’t make those decisions for them. The other thing we’re doing for school districts — and we’re going to be rolling out some educational initiatives here in a couple of weeks — we’re going to be asking school boards, superintendents, teachers, ‘what are regulations that we can change and get off the books to free up what they do in the classroom so it’s not so confining and so restrictive.’ In the face of less money, we’re going to ask school districts what are some laws and bills that we can change to help give them more flexibility, maybe less redundancy and paperwork and duplication.
Petersen: From your proposed budget, the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District has actually made their best case scenario, which is the closure of six schools. An increase in the pupil-to-teacher ratio, the elimination of sports and activities. Several students, as well as educators and community members, have come out really concerned about that. Is this what you envision for Alaska’s school districts? How do you envision Alaska’s schools?
Dunleavy: I would hope we have schools that ensure all kids are reading by the time they leave third grade. I would hope we would have schools making sure all kids are proficient in algebra, which is a gatekeeper course for any sciences. I would hope they would be focusing on those issues. The last several years there’s actually been an increase in funding, but the outcomes have not been met. So I would hope we can take a step back, look at the things we have been doing and why we aren’t getting the outcomes we want and understanding that we have a $1.6 billion fiscal gap we have to deal with. How do we go about doing that? I think there are ways to do business differently and education in Alaska. I look forward to having a conversation with folks, especially when we roll out these initiatives here in a couple of weeks.
Petersen: Teacher retention has been a big issue in rural Alaska, specifically, and it’s getting worse. How can we bring, proficient teachers up here, especially now that the school of education at the University of Alaska Anchorage lost their accreditation? How can we bring teachers up here? How can we supply rural Alaska with a skilled staff?
Dunleavy: I’ve been here since 1983. Rural Alaska has always had a teacher retention problem, even when we were the highest paid in the nation. We’re paying folks the, most, so it’s not necessarily a money issue. We’d have to look at the job conditions, housing conditions. Think we have to do an in-depth exit interview with teachers as to why they came and then why they’re leaving. I think it’s much deeper than just money, because if the issue was just money we would be having much better outcomes statewide. We would not have a teacher retention issue if it was just money.
Petersen: Do you have any kind of recruitment project that you want to implement?
Dunleavy: Well, we’re looking at potentially doing things differently with certification, and once again, those initiatives will be coming out here in the next week or two so people can take a look at them. We’re really concerned about the educational outcomes of kids and we’re willing to roll up our sleeves and work with the educators across the board, school boards, to deal with this new fiscal reality, but also get the outcomes that we all know we should get.
Petersen: School infrastructure is a big cost here. One of our communities, K-Selo, has been has been working on getting a new school. The district has determined the school is not in a condition it should be and has made it their number one priority capital project. Roughly 30 percent of the schools on the peninsula are over 50 years old, and half of the schools are 30 years or older. Of course, it costs money to build new schools. How can we deal with Alaska’s burgeoning education infrastructure issues?
Dunleavy: So the question is going into the future, do we want to school children or do we want to educate children, because you got a lot of improvements in the way to deliver education through technology. For example, in Mat-Su, we were really focused on increasing our technological reach in terms of online classes, live classes from all over the country, all over the world. Using low-cost alternatives, like Khan Academy, which is free online. Sometimes we get hung up on buildings in schooling and less so on educational outcomes. I think there’s a tremendous opportunity within this budget discussion to look at ways in which we can educate kids, not necessarily in just a building. Could they take courses at the university? We have a very robust and increasing public home-school approach to education. More and more parents want to look at that so they can develop ILPs, individual learning plans, and use private vendors within the public school context to educate their kids. There’s a whole bunch of different things we can do which you’re not necessarily tied to a building. Are we going to try and work with school districts to make sure that where there are places they need buildings that those buildings are safe and sound? Yes. We’re going to continue to have those discussions and work with school districts.
Clarion editor Erin Thompson: On the idea that we can move to technology and have more people doing distance learning, I see that as a great idea if you’ve got resources as a parent to maybe sit at home with a kid and do home schooling. What do you do for parents who maybe don’t have the resources for that? If I’m a working parent, how do I handle that and what are we going to do for parents if we’re looking at taking kids out of those brick and mortar buildings?
Dunleavy: Well, there’s always going to be a place in the brick and mortar buildings for kids that need a teacher in front of them. But, for example, we have things called AP courses, advanced placement courses. Oftentimes in school, the advanced placement courses are taught by the very best teacher to the very best kids in the smallest class size. That should be flipped. Those 14 kids should have an opportunity to take college courses, take college courses online, take other courses online because they’re usually your best or most independent-minded students. In other words, they could do these things. If they give them the opportunity that frees up that best teacher and then split a class with the teacher next door who maybe is a first-year teacher teaching 35 kids the same class. I also believe, for example, we could have more tests for credit. There was a time in Alaska, and I still think it exists in some of our schools, where if you’re a fluent Spanish speaking child, you still have to take two years of foreign languages in the classroom setting. Why can’t they just test out for credit? Get the credit so you’re not wasting space and resources on an individual that already speaks a language. Why not do that with mathematics, language arts? There’s a whole host of things we could do we’ve never thought about doing it because we don’t believe it can be done. I would suggest there’ll be tremendous opportunities for educational co-ops to spring up, or 10, 15 kids that want to take online courses — they could get together in buildings other than school buildings. I don’t think everyone is in the same boat that they all have to go to a brick and mortar school. We’re seeing tremendous growth, again, in our public home-school opportunities. We’re seeing more and more kids take college courses before they graduate. Up in the Mat-Valley, we have middle college campuses, Anchorage has a middle college campus where you can take both high school and college courses and it’s cheaper, it’s less expensive and those kids don’t have to take AP courses.
Thompson: Just to backtrack a little bit, you were talking about regulations, and you were going to talk to educators about what kind of stuff could be eliminated? Do you have ideas right now of what kinds of things you maybe are looking at eliminating?
Arduin: We’re talking about a lot of paperwork. We’ve caused them to have to fill out a lot of paperwork. So our commissioner of education is going through those.
Dunleavy: I think the opportunity to shrink the time in which a teacher can get certification, I think that’s an opportunity given this budget issue that we’re in. I just think there is again, a test for credit, instead of having 25 or 35 kids in your classroom. Are five of them potentially eligible for tests for credit or more? That would free up teacher time and less paperwork. I think there’s a number of different things we can take a look at. In about a week or two weeks at the most, you’ll see what our initiatives are.