I am proud to be a born and raised Fairbanksan. I love our amazing community and I plan to stay here for the rest of my life, but this can’t be said for every one of our Fairbanks neighbors. We are losing individuals and families everyday, and, especially young people, are leaving the state for opportunities elsewhere. Together, we can change this trend, but we must take bold steps now and put our focus where it should be, ensuring all Alaskan students have access to a high-quality education. If Alaska is to grow and prosper, we must invest in our future before it is too late.
As everyday Fairbanksans attempt to build lives and raise families, we are told workers of all sorts are in short supply and that our community needs more workers in the construction trades, more professionals, more nurses, more lab technicians, more teachers, more staff in the hospitality industry, and more public safety officers. At the same time, we have a serious child care crisis across our state. Young mothers and fathers are finding it more and more difficult to identify quality child care and when they do, it’s not affordable and there are monthslong wait lists. The child care crisis is compounding the worker shortages that plague both our private and public sectors.
As our oil production and related revenue have declined, our investments in education have remained flat. Flat funding, coupled with steep inflation, rising operating costs, and ever-increasing deferred maintenance costs have cut into school budgets dramatically. Flat education funding over the last seven years has resulted in a statewide reduction in education services across our K-12 and post-secondary education system, resulting in larger class sizes, fewer courses, reduced extra-curriculars, increased teacher turnover, and reductions and shortages in counselors, librarians and bus drivers. Major maintenance needs continue to be deferred and very few new facilities have been built. Families are frustrated. A lack of investment in our education systems, a dire shortage of affordable child care, a worker shortage, and a developing pattern of out-migration are compounding into a perfect storm that needs innovative solutions and financial commitments now if we hope to grow and prosper again.
While Alaska struggles, many other states in the country have seized on opportunities and redoubled their focus on education, increasing funding and adding broad-based implementation of early childhood education programs, as well as greater diversity in course offerings, including innovative career and technical (CTE) programs. These investments are already paying large dividends in the form of improved educational outcomes, larger and better qualified workforces, and steady economic growth. It is apparent that with well-capitalized education, states support businesses, both small and large, with homegrown workers.
Major investments are needed in Alaska to stimulate economic growth and improve quality of life. These investments go beyond just resource development, we need a substantial investment in our public education systems, with a major focus on early childhood education that includes excellent preschool with trained educators in critical positions. For too long, our investments in education have been unpredictable and thinly capitalized, leading to an uncertainty that weakens our prospects for sustained growth and success. If we want a vibrant economy, we need innovators and skilled workers arising from within our schools and universities, not from outside. This investment must be our top priority.
Research indicates that high-quality early childhood education results in better outcomes at every step in our children’s education and careers. Such an investment also takes pressure off of our child care system, allowing more parents the opportunity for better training and education so they can join or return to the workforce. If we want to attract new professionals to live and work in our state, we need the high-quality schools that families search for before choosing to live in a community. Professionals repeatedly identify excellent schools as the number one factor affecting their family decisions on where to live and work.
At a recent event I attended, sponsored by the Hunt Institute, they referenced work by the Nobel Prize-winning economist, Dr. James Heckman detailing the economic impact of high quality early childhood education in communities. Heckman demonstrated that such investments have the highest rate of return the earlier they are made in a person’s life. He writes that excellent pre-k programs build skills for adaptation and the development of resiliency, skills which will help children succeed in school and in life. The Hunt Institute also described a preschool study conducted in Michigan (the Perry Preschool Project conducted by Highscope) which concluded that for every dollar spent on early childhood education programs, taxpayers can expect a return on investment of 13 percent or more. What is clear is that investing in the learning and growth of young children is vital for economic development.
Business communities across the country are demanding a workforce with skills including problem-solving, decision-making, critical thinking, and collaboration. These very skills are incubated during the years of early childhood, so it is, in fact, very cost-effective to invest in quality early childhood education. It is not complex, if we invest in our children’s education today they will give back with a productive lifetime of economic contribution. The state’s flat-funded and unpredictable education funding is penny-wise and pound-foolish, at best. The pre-k funds provided in the Alaska Reads Act are a small but important start down this path, but we need more. We must make a major, long-term investment in our future.
We need bold action. Establishing excellent educational systems will take commitment from all of us. It will take resources from all of us. It will require our partners and the business community to support and help fund great programs through increased revenue. But, if we want our young people to remain in the state, and if we want a well-educated, skilled, and productive workforce that will join in growing our economy, we must invest capital in our youth and our families. It’s time to invest in our future today before it is too late.
Rep. Maxine Dibert is a lifelong Fairbanksan and educator who has taught third grade at Denali Elementary for the last 22 years. She is currently serving her first term in Juneau representing the people of Fairbanks in the Alaska State House.