I wish every kid in Alaska could have a childhood like mine. Growing up in Fairbanks, I spent countless hours running around in the woods next to our home, making up games with my brother and sister. We skated on outdoor rinks all winter, camped and fished and swam in the Chena River all summer, and took family trips to Valdez to get out on the water and fill our freezer with silver salmon.
My dad was a carpenter turned firefighter, and my mom was a Fairbanks Pioneer Home cook. Both of my parents worked hard to make ends meet and to set their kids up for success.
Their work is a big part of the reason I’ve been able to make it to where I am today — running for lieutenant governor — but equally important is the support our community and our state gave me by providing good public education for me every step of the way.
Damn if I didn’t have a great education in Alaska public schools. I went to Weller Elementary School, Tanana Middle School, Lathrop High School, and the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Back in those days, Alaska invested in its education system and created conditions where we hired great teachers and kept them here for a career. Every strong economy in the world has a thriving education system. Education is the great equalizer, and people like me benefit from an excellent system.
I’m a first-time candidate for office, but I know exactly why I’m running — I’m the proud mother of a 4-year-old girl, and I’m worried about her future. Will she be able to stay in Alaska? Or will she find greater opportunities by leaving the state, as more than 20,000 Alaskans have in the past three years alone?
We can’t take Alaska’s exceptional education system for granted anymore, and we can’t keep kicking the can down the road and neglecting our schools without harming our kids and our communities.
School districts are struggling under huge budget gaps, and school closures are imminent. The Anchorage School District proposes closing six elementary schools. Fairbanks has already closed three schools as they grapple with population loss and a funding deficit. These decisions will fundamentally and permanently alter the communities where these schools, and families, reside. In addition to closures, Alaska is facing a staffing shortage of 1,100 teachers this school year. Districts cannot find substitute teachers and are pleading with community members to fill in. We’re also short hundreds of bus drivers, making working families the most vulnerable as parents struggle to work and transport children to school.
Instead of the best schools, the best university system, and the strongest infrastructure in the country, we feast on the scraps of a weak and unstable budget cycle dictated by reelection plans instead of sound fiscal policy, and by PFDs that buoy the hopes of struggling Alaskans but quietly bankrupt our kids’ future.
I’m running alongside Bill Walker because I’m immensely frustrated by the lack of progress we’ve made toward sound budgeting. Talking about budgets isn‘t sexy, and it may not win elections. But it’s the foundation of a strong economy. Strong fiscal policy means strong schools, communities, a vibrant university system, and a capital budget that will move Alaska forward. It means businesses can thrive because of a strong workforce. After all, people and families gravitate towards lands of opportunity, where their kids can go to good schools and where the community is safe. People want affordable housing, good health care, and childcare options. No wonder people are leaving Alaska in droves.
Bill and I will fight for the next generation. We will invest in our education system by increasing and inflation-proofing the base student allocation (BSA). We will work to grow our own teachers — in rural and urban Alaska — so that our education system is once again a model for the nation. We will fix the broken teacher retirement system and work to retain and recruit teachers in our state. We will invest in the University of Alaska, so every Alaskan can receive a world-class education right here at home. We will do these things because our children and grandchildren deserve no less.
If Mike Dunleavy really cares about the future of Alaska, he wouldn’t have slashed the University by 44%, public schools by 25%, and the Alaska Marine Highway System by 67%; he also wouldn’t jack up Pioneer Home rates. If Dunleavy really cared about Alaskans, he’d want a state where business can thrive. That means investing in education, the University, the marine highway, infrastructure, and good-paying jobs.
Bill and I are running to provide a vision and a passion for Alaska that has desperately been lacking in the past four years. We can have a strong PFD and great schools, capital funding, and a strong University system. The only thing we’re missing is leadership.
Tonight, I read my daughter a book (or three) as she fell asleep. Tomorrow, I’m back on the road to talk to Alaskans, show up at events, and meet as many community members as possible. All because I want my daughter, and all Alaska kids, to have the opportunities that I did growing up here.
Heidi Drygas, a former commissioner of Labor and Workforce Development, is running for lieutenant governor alongside Bill Walker, who was the 11th governor of Alaska from 2014 to 2018. Bill and Heidi encourage you to rank them first in the Nov. 8 election.