Nikiski Middle/High School teacher Jesse Bjorkman delivers a commencement address at the school’s 2022 commencement ceremony on Monday, May 16, 2022 in Nikiski, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Nikiski Middle/High School teacher Jesse Bjorkman delivers a commencement address at the school’s 2022 commencement ceremony on Monday, May 16, 2022 in Nikiski, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Time to invest in public schools

  • Sunday, February 26, 2023 4:57am
  • Opinion

As newly elected legislators, we bring over 52 years of collective teaching experience to the political conversation about our public schools. We have each grappled with a system in decline from inside our classrooms, and individually decided it is a system worth fighting for. The voters from our districts have given us a seat at the table as the Alaska Legislature determines how to fund Alaska’s schools. We are grateful for the opportunity to use our experience to help shape the conversation.

An educated population is absolutely essential for Alaska’s success, and in recognition of this, our constitution mandates that:

“The legislature shall by general law establish and maintain a system of public schools open to all students of the State.”

The Legislature provided additional policy guidance for schools:

“The purpose of education is to help ensure that all students can succeed in their education and work; shape worthwhile and satisfying lives for themselves; exemplify the best values of society; and be effective in improving the character and quality of the world around them.”

We think Alaskans can agree that it is important to ensure that all students can be successful in their education. Otherwise, we’re just going through the motions, warehousing children in classrooms without setting them up for life. But what do we need to achieve success in our public schools?

At the foundation, schools need qualified teachers to educate students on the basics, such as reading, writing, and arithmetic. In order to function, schools must also have nurses, counselors, librarians, bus drivers, nutrition professionals and other support staff to ensure that students’ basic needs are met. Students’ success in education is improved when they have access to experiential learning through music, art, computer science, sports, drama and debate, world languages, outdoor ed, and career and technical education. And public schools do welcome all students, including children who must overcome challenges to being successful in the classroom, such as those who are learning English, who require a 24/7 medical attendant, who are in foster care, children who are hungry and homeless, who are living with domestic violence, or worse experiencing abuse themselves.

The reality is that at current levels of funding, our public schools are struggling to fill teaching positions and buy the materials necessary to provide a foundational education to the students who come to school ready to learn, much less pay for support services, enriching classroom experiences, and extracurricular activities. School funding in Alaska has stagnated for more than five years while costs have increased by 24%. Increasing costs for energy, maintenance and health care have taken money out of the classroom. Wages have fallen behind compensation in the Lower 48, and the lack of a competitive retirement system has caused dynamic, passionate and experienced teachers to leave the profession and the state. At the start of the current school year, there were over 400 open teaching positions across the state.

Alaska cannot provide an excellent education without the ability to hire and retain quality educators.

Public testimony to the Legislature on education has been clear. Parents across the state have seen the devastation left by underfunding our schools and are concerned that Alaska is not providing the educational opportunities to our students that today’s adults had when they were growing up. Alaska’s kids deserve better. Alaska’s teachers want to assist families to provide their children with the skills they need to succeed. In order to do that, Alaskans must prioritize and fund high quality public education.

There are many ways the Legislature can help Alaska’s schools deliver on the promise of an excellent education for every student:

Increase the BSA substantially and inflation-proof it.

Provide a competitive hybrid retirement plan for educators.

Provide transportation funding that keeps money in the classroom.

Creating a state budget is always a question of what people value. We can slow outmigration, attract new families and grow our state’s future skilled workforce and productive citizens by investing in our public schools. Alaska’s children are 20 percent of our population, but 100 percent of our future, and they deserve the best schools we can give them.

Sen. Jesse Bjorkman, Rep. Maxine Dibert and Rep. Rebecca Himschoot are public school teachers.

More in Opinion

This image available under the Creative Commons license shows the outline of the state of Alaska filled with the pattern of the state flag.
Opinion: Old models of development are not sustainable for Alaska

Sustainability means investing in keeping Alaska as healthy as possible.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy unveils proposals to offer public school teachers annual retention bonuses and enact policies restricting discussion of sex and gender in education during a news conference in Anchorage. (Screenshot)
Opinion: As a father and a grandfather, I believe the governor’s proposed laws are anti-family

Now, the discrimination sword is pointing to our gay and transgender friends and families.

Kenai Peninsula Education Association President Nathan Erfurth works in his office on Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021, in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Voices of the Peninsula: Now is the time to invest in Kenai Peninsula students

Parents, educators and community members addressed the potential budget cuts with a clear message.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy holds a press conference at the Capitol on Tuesday, April 9, 2019. (Juneau Empire file photo)
Opinion: An accurate portrayal of parental rights isn’t controversial

Affirming and defining parental rights is a matter of respect for the relationship between parent and child

Opinion: When the state values bigotry over the lives of queer kids

It has been a long, difficult week for queer and trans Alaskans like me.

Dr. Sarah Spencer. (Photo by Maureen Todd and courtesy of Dr. Sarah Spencer)
Voices of the Peninsula: Let’s bring opioid addiction treatment to the Alaskans who need it most

This incredibly effective and safe medication has the potential to dramatically increase access to treatment

Unsplash / Louis Velazquez
Opinion: Fish, family and freedom… from Big Oil

“Ultimate investment in the status quo” is not what I voted for.

An orphaned moose calf reared by the author is seen in 1970. (Stephen F. Stringham/courtesy photo)
Voices of the Peninsula: Maximizing moose productivity on the Kenai Peninsula

Maximum isn’t necessarily optimum, as cattle ranchers learned long ago.

(Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File)
Opinion: The time has come to stop Eastman’s willful and wanton damage

God in the Bible makes it clear that we are to care for the vulnerable among us.

Caribou graze on the greening tundra of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeast Alaska in June, 2001. (Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File)
Opinion: AIDEA’s $20 million-and-growing investment looks like a bad bet

Not producing in ANWR could probably generate a lot of money for Alaska.

A fisher holds a reel on the Kenai River near Soldotna on June 30, 2021. (Photo by Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Voices of the Peninsula: King salmon closures long overdue

Returns have progressively gone downhill since the early run was closed in June 2012

(Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire File)
Opinion: Fixing legislative salaries and per diem

The state Senate was right to unanimously reject giving a 20% pay… Continue reading