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.

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