Jessica Cook, left, and Les Gara stand in The Peninsula Clarion’s offices on Thursday, June 30, 2022, in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Jessica Cook, left, and Les Gara stand in The Peninsula Clarion’s offices on Thursday, June 30, 2022, in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Alaska Voices: Better schools for a better economy

We need leaders who care about our children’s futures

  • By Les Gara and Jessica Cook
  • Tuesday, September 20, 2022 10:34pm
  • Opinion

By Les Gara and Jessica Cook

Students deserve the best teachers to succeed, for themselves, and so Alaska can have a strong economy. Our plan to restore education as a top priority again is based on my record on education. I’m proud of a record of pushing the legislation our education leaders and our law enforcement officials, including on the Kenai Peninsula, say we need, and that I’ll pass as governor.

We could have avoided today’s education crisis of lost teachers, decreased language, arts, music and other courses, and closed schools in some communities. Jessica Cook, as an education leader and educator, will be a crucial asset in helping us restore Alaska’s schools.

Here’s your choice. Gov. Mike Dunleavy started his governorship by pushing to cut school support by a state-record $280,000,000. That would have been education Armageddon, and cost us the layoff of almost 3,000 teachers, educators, counsellors, aides and support staff. It would have cost students the opportunity they deserve to reach their potential. It would have cost our economy the well-educated workforce we deserve of those who graduate, and make it through quality voc. ed. And college.

Then he tried to cut the modest, but multi-year 1.5% increase in school support I helped spearhead in 2018. That was a result of House passage of a bill I wrote and carried, House Bill 339. House passage of that bill led to a compromise with a Republican-led Senate. We agreed to the last multi-year increase in education support in state history.

Gov. Dunleavy went to court to block those needed school funds.

We need leaders who care about our children’s futures.

Here’s our plan for restoring Alaska’s schools to what they once were, among the best in the nation. I don’t have to reach for a plan. It includes bills I’ve filed, written, fought for, that educators pushed for and are pushing for today. I can say I’m the only candidate who’s pushed these needed reforms while in office, not for the first time on the 2022 campaign trail.

With leadership from a governor, these reforms will pass.

Today education support has fallen over $100 million behind inflation. Schools are cutting arts and language courses, and class sizes are too large in most schools. Schools are having a hard time convincing needed teachers to come or stay here, when they can get better pay and better benefits in the Lower 48. We get teachers (and police) as tourists now. Too many come for a few years, as we pay to train them, and then who leave for a state where they get paid what they deserve, and get a retirement pension, which Alaska no longer offers.

We also need to help more Alaskans to become teachers. People who want to strengthen their own Alaska rural and urban communities.

In 2004, I saw what educators, parents and school officials saw. A decade of lagging school support. So, I proposed House Bill 477, which required school support to be adjusted for the cost of inflation every year. Schools shouldn’t have to find new ways to cut every year.

I field bills like this, and House Bill 331 in 2014 to make up for past losses to inflation, because I believe students deserve the best opportunity to succeed possible, and cutting teachers isn’t the way to educate students.

In contrast, Mike Dunleavy, when he was senator, often voted for $50 million education cuts. They’d pass these cuts in the Senate. I and my allies in the House wouldn’t agree to pass a budget until the cuts were dropped.

Alaska also made a colossal mistake in 2005, becoming the only state to not offer what every other state offers — a modest retirement pension to police, teachers, firefighters and other public servants. That made us a non-competitive place for teachers, police and other public servants.

I voted against ending pensions. I’m the only candidate who, when in office, sponsored legislation to return to a modest, needed pension so we could attract and retain teachers, police, firefighters, Troopers and needed public servants again.

School superintendents, and the Chief of Police in Kenai, have told me they can’t attract the best teachers, or the best police, or retain them. Sure, we get some amazing professionals who stay in Alaska only because they love this state. But the others leave.

Our students deserve better. Jess and I will give students the opportunity they deserve.

Les Gara is a former legislator and assistant attorney general on the civil prosecution of Exxon after the Exon Valdez Oil Spill. He lives in Anchorage.

Jessica Cook is a public school teacher, former vice president of both Alaska’s and Anchorage’s education associations, and lives in Palmer.

More in Opinion

Peter Zuyus
What about Alaska’s seniors in the 2022 governor race?

When 130,000 seniors speak, candidates will listen.

This image available under the Creative Commons license shows the outline of the state of Alaska filled with the pattern of the state flag.
Opinion: Bringing broadband to all Alaskans

Too many Alaskans face barriers accessing the internet.

This photo shows a stack of pocket constitutions at the Alaska State Capitol. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire File)
Opinion: Join us in voting against a constitutional convention

Voting no on a constitutional convention is vital to the well-being and stability of our state.

Michael O’Meara.
Point of View: Tell BOEM how you feel

It seems like BOEM should prioritize input from people most likely to be affected if leases are sold

The State of Alaska, Department of Administration, Office of Information Technology webpage. (Screenshot/oit.alaska.gov)
Cloud migration now underway will strengthen, enhance State IT systems

At the most basic level, cloud computing is the delivery of computing services remotely

A resident casts their vote in the regular municipal election Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020, at the Kenai Peninsula Fairgrounds in Ninilchik, Alaska. (Photo by Megan Pacer/Homer News)
Voices of the Peninsula: This is our borough and city

By Therese Lewandowski Another election already? Yes! This is our local elections… Continue reading

Jessica Cook, left, and Les Gara stand in The Peninsula Clarion’s offices on Thursday, June 30, 2022, in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Alaska Voices: Better schools for a better economy

We need leaders who care about our children’s futures

The Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation building is seen in Juneau, Alaska, in March 2022. (Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire)
Opinion: APFC keeps steady keel during turbulent year

FY2022 was a challenging year for all investors

Homer Foundation
Point of View: Nonprofits provide essential services not provided by cities

By our count, nonprofits provide more than 100 jobs to our communities

t
Opinion: Don’t get scammed like I nearly did

I should have just turned off the computer.

Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce campaigns for governor as he walks in the 65th annual Soldotna Progress Days Parade on Saturday, July 23, 2022 in Soldotna, Alaska. Pierce resigned as borough mayor effective Sept. 30, 2022, to focus on his gubernatorial campaign. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Voices of the Peninsula: ‘It has been an honor to serve’

Borough mayor gives send-off ahead of departure