Closing small schools won’t fix education budget

  • Thursday, January 14, 2016 4:58pm
  • Opinion

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District administration and board of education made a show of support this week for small schools within the district and around Alaska.

It’s a position we agree with, and one we hope peninsula residents can get behind as well — regardless of whether your community includes schools large or small.

As the state takes steps to address its budget gap — estimated to be about $3.5 billion — some legislators have proposed raising the minimum number of students required to attend a school for it to receive state funds. The current minimum enrollment is 10 students; the minimum enrollment being floated is 20-25 students. According to reports, the change would impact 60 schools statewide, and as many as five schools in the borough — Moose Pass, Hope, Cooper Landing, Port Graham, and Marathon School.

Marathon School is unique in that it is housed in the Kenai Peninsula Youth Facility, and enrollment fluctuates with the population of the facility.

The other four schools have much in common, not the least of which is that they serve as hubs in some of the peninsula’s smallest — but still vibrant — communities. Providing education to students in those communities comes with challenges, not the least of which is the cost. Certainly, schools in small communities don’t benefit from the same economics of scale as schools in the peninsula’s larger communities, such as Kenai and Soldotna — never mind those in Anchorage or the Mat-Su.

However, those students have the same right to a public education. Indeed, the Alaska constitution requires the Legislature “to establish and maintain a system of public schools open to all children of the State.”

Certainly, the Legislature could opt to close some of the state’s small brick-and-mortar schools, offering additional online and correspondence learning opportunities.

But while that might satisfy the letter of the law, it falls short in meeting the spirit of the constitution. Just as the state faces challenges in delivering education to its smallest communities, students in those communities face challenges in being able to access a quality education. Online learning, for example, is not an option in areas without access to high-speed Internet.

Delivering education in Alaska is hard, and in the current climate, paying for it is even harder. Much of the state’s education budget is locked into formula funding — leaving little room to make additional cuts.

Changing the rules for which schools are eligible for that formula funding is one way to cut. But such a philosophy penalizes students based simply on geography. What’s more, cuts are being proposed with no accompanying viable options for students affected.

As we’ve stressed on many occasions, if the Legislature wants to address Alaska’s system of public education, it’s not something that can be done in a piecemeal, nip here, tuck there fashion. We would never treat other topics, such as oil and gas taxes, in the same way, yet education is just as complex and just as essential to the state’s future.

At some point, the Legislature needs to better define its vision for delivering education in Alaska to communities large and small — and then do the work necessary to make that vision reality.

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