The Alaska Senate Finance Committee this week put forward a trio of bills aimed at improving education in Alaska, from kindergarten through high school.
To be sure, there are some good ideas contained in Senate Bills 102, 103, and 104, such as improved broadband access in schools, the ability for districts to share effective curriculums, and a directive for the Department of Education and Early Development to review other regions and adopt best practices.
But there’s a troubling part of the legislation in SB 103, which would phase out the Alaska Performance Scholarship and the Alaska Education Grant. Funding would be redirected to the Alaska Innovation Education Grant Fund, which would provide grants to districts that work with the Department of Education to, according to a staffer for Sen. Anna McKinnon, “transform how they deliver education to their students.”
Our concern isn’t so much that the Legislature would school districts to be innovative in how they deliver education; we’re more worried that lawmakers seem to be yet again moving on to the next new thing without giving much consideration to whether the old thing was working.
Educating a student from kindergarten through 12th grade is a 13-year investment. What school districts need to be successful is consistent, stable, predictable funding. In Alaska, the bulk of that responsibility falls on the Legislature, but unfortunately, it would be hard for many lawmakers to argue that they’ve met that obligation in recent years.
This session, in the face of a budget gap in the neighborhood of $3 billion, the Senate has proposed a 5 percent cut to the base student allocation. Redirecting funding from the Alaska Performance Scholarship and the Alaska Education Grant appears to be an effort to soften the blow, but all it does is force school districts to try to find new solutions to challenges they already were addressing before their budgets were slashed. And in the process, it pulls the rug out from under a large group of students with hopes of attending college or trade school in the coming years.
Lawmakers need to do away with the perception that schools aren’t being innovative in the way they educate students. Educators have been developing ways to use technology to enhance educational opportunities since the first desktop computers started showing up in classrooms decades ago. As the technology has evolved, so have teaching methods.
Lawmakers need to stop trying to sell the cut as “a nickel on the dollar,” as if it won’t even be noticed. A five percent cut for a state where school district funding already is tight is a big deal. If we were talking about “a nickel on the dollar” tax increase, there would be outrage. We understand all too well the state’s fiscal situation, and education funding remains the largest portion of the state’s budget. But taking 5 percent out of the base student allocation will mean significant cuts to teaching and support staff at school districts across the state, and no amount of innovation will completely make up for it.
Lawmakers need to stop pointing to high school graduation rates as the reason to fund or not to fund. During Monday’s hearing, Sen. McKinnon’s staffer commented that “student outcomes are not where we hoped they would be.” As we said, educating a student is a 13-year process. Imagine trying to put together a plan to do that, but each year, school districts are given different targets and different resources to meet those goals. What one Legislature may give, the next one may take away. Given the inconsistency of the Legislature’s education policy, is it any wonder that graduation rates might be inconsistent, too?
The Alaska Performance Scholarship was never meant to be the silver bullet for Alaska’s education system; it was intended as a part of a comprehensive approach to improving student outcomes. The goal of the scholarship is to encourage students to take more rigorous courses during their high school careers; this year’s graduating class will be just the third to have completed four years of high school with the incentive in place. If lawmakers believe that the state truly can no longer afford the program, then make the hard decision and phase it out.
But a week at the end of the session hardly seems to be enough time to take up a comprehensive approach to delivering education in Alaska. In fact, it is part of the piecemeal approach that has yielded the results lawmakers are quick to criticize. We hope lawmakers take the time to dig deeper into the challenges of delivering education in Alaska before making decisions with such far-reaching consequences.