The Anchorage School District, or ASD, is facing devastating choices as a result of Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s education vetoes and years of declining education funding. Over the next few months, the Anchorage School Board will consider proposals from ASD administration to close multiple schools. Every single affected neighborhood will undoubtedly weigh in defending their local school, but the reality is that everyone loses when state government fails to fund education. Tragically, Gov. Dunleavy has been uniquely responsible for bringing about these school closures. In addition to opposing meaningful increases in classroom funding, called Base Student Allocation, he vetoed yearly inflation-adjustment appropriations put forward by the Legislature.
In addition to forcing school closures, Dunleavy’s previous vetoes of school bond debt reimbursement increased taxes on Anchorage home and business owners by $74 million. The governor’s evisceration of public education is both devastating for students and costly for hard-working Anchorage residents and entrepreneurs.
So here we are: As local homeowners, we tax ourselves to the cap to support schools. A slim majority of legislators appropriated funds to keep pace with inflation. But the governor vetoed that funding every year until this election year, and now the Anchorage School District is being forced to close schools to close an operating budget gap. Our budget gap per student is $640. That’s the difference between what it costs to provide education and the amount supplied by the outdated BSA formula. And the latest proposal for school closures follows two previous school closures and rising numbers of students per classroom. Few things negatively affect education more than excessive numbers of students per class, but grossly inadequate state funding has left ASD with no good choices. As bad as things are now, they would have been even worse in the absence of one-time relief appropriated by Congress.
As bleak of a situation as this is for public education, it is also true that in every crisis there is opportunity. I hope this school closure debate brings us together as a community, and unites us around the common goal of outstanding schools. Maybe we’ve taken good schools for granted for too long, and now is the time to stand and fight for public education.
It’s worth remembering how extraordinary Anchorage public schools are. We have extraordinary socioeconomic, racial and linguistic diversity. Most other cities across the country have segregated school systems, in which wealthy English-speaking students tend to get districted into high-performing schools, and poor non-English-speaking students tend to get districted into lower performing school zones. That is simply not the case in Anchorage. Instead of being segregated, our school system is an engine of equal opportunity. Wealthy and poor students, and students of all races go to school side by side, and we know from the data that all groups of students perform better when they have the opportunity to learn from people who have different backgrounds. Not only do we provide great opportunities with diverse schools, we have a model system of parental school choice. Many parents send their kids to public immersion schools, and our children have the incredible opportunity to grow up fluent in a wide range of languages, from Spanish to Yup’ik to Japanese. Every single person who’s spent even a few minutes inside one of our schools has seen firsthand the incredible commitment and passion Anchorage teachers have for education. Teachers’ work is a labor of love, and an incredible service to our community.
Alaska used to lead the nation in funding for schools, but we have fallen further and further behind. Now, after three years of vetoes from Gov. Dunleavy, some of Anchorage’s schools will in fact close. This was an avoidable tragedy, but let’s not wallow in despair or give up hope. Instead, we should be inspired by the work parents, teachers and students do every single day, and be motivated by their service to demand more of the governor, and to ask that the Legislature fund not just inflation-adjustment payments, but finally increase the Base Student Allocation. Our schools are poised to succeed, if only they have adequate funding from the state.
Marilyn Pillifant is a retired 28-year ASD teacher and a 55-year Alaska resident.
Mary Janis is a retired 30-year ASD teacher and lifelong Alaskan.
Pamela J Lloyd, MS, OTR/L, is a retired ASD occupational therapist.
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