GUEST COMMENTARY: Pay now or pay later when it comes to education

Public education matters because a student’s opportunity to achieve matters. The Legislature has an opportunity to end years of continuing cuts to teachers, guidance and career counsellors, teacher training, end even courses.

We’ve lost over 500 teachers, counsellors and education support staff in recent years. Bigger class sizes, demoralized teachers, and rolled back curriculum don’t increase academic achievement.

Education should be more than crowd control. Adjusted for inflation, classroom funding for our public schools has fallen by $90 million since the 2014 legislative session. As a state we can do better than give students less than they need to reach their goals and dreams.

We can plead austerity as a state, and the inability to come together to fix our deficit has been frustrating to me. But it is wrong to tell a parent of a 7-year-old that they can come back to second grade later, when the adults who represent them get their act together. We can do better than tell a student in Cordova that basic chemistry classes can’t be offered every year.

That’s why I and Rep. Harriet Drummond have filed House Bill 339, to reverse the trend of disappearing school support. The bill has growing support in the Legislature, over a dozen co-sponsors, and would provide a needed, modest boost of $100 per student in school funding.

That basically keeps schools even with the rate of inflation. As costs of supplies and health insurance and medical costs go up with inflation, flat or reduced school funding causes damage to our ability to deliver the education children and youth deserve.

We can start to reverse these cuts now, or we can pay later. We’ll pay for more unemployment, lower graduation rates, fewer students who graduate ready for college or vocational education, and a weaker workforce. We’ll pay with more people on Medicaid, housing assistance and other expensive public benefits.

I’d rather pay now to educate students, so they can stand proudly on their own, and so they can reach their dreams.

Here are a few examples of what’s happening to public schools around the state.

On the Kenai Peninsula many schools don’t have “frills” like music classes. A quality education includes courses and activities that excite and inspire students. In some Bristol Bay schools, grades are now being combined into single classrooms to save money.

In the Lake Iliamna region, school has been cut by 20 days to avoid laying off teachers.

In Kodiak the district lost 18 education positions last year, and they are on pace to lose 16 more next year with flat funding that again and again falls behind inflation. In Nome schools have lost 13 positions since 2015.

Class sizes are going up from already excessive levels, from Juneau to Anchorage to Fairbanks. If a school doesn’t cut teachers, they cut courses, counselors, school days and teacher training.

Right now, many students in rural Alaska take online courses that involve no teacher interaction. Taking courses with bland written materials students can read on a computer, without a teacher available for questions, is reading and not effective student learning. We can do better.

I also think we should fund education “early”, so schools don’t have to warn teachers they might be laid off because of budget uncertainty. Our bipartisan House Majority coalition passed an early funding bill months ago, and our Republican colleagues on the Senate side seem willing to do the same. But early funding that doesn’t keep up with inflation will lead to another year of more layoffs and staff and curriculum cuts.

I get the Legislature hasn’t fixed four years of the worst budget deficits in state history — and won’t use this column to point fingers at my colleagues on either side of the aisle.

Soundbites, and big philosophical differences about whether oil companies and the wealthiest Alaskans are chipping in a fair share to help close the deficit aside, the biggest cause of our massive recent deficits has been a massive drop in oil prices.

In a state very dependent on revenue from the oil we own in common, a drop from $120 per barrel oil (prices that brought in strong revenue), to prices of less than half that, cut more than half the revenue the state uses for basic services like schools, public safety, child protection, help for seniors, and safe roads.

Deficits of $2.3 billion, or $2.7 billion if we ever adopt a needed construction project budget again to put people to work and maintain our roads, schools, energy projects and infrastructure, are too big for most to comprehend. And that’s after Republicans, Democrats and Independents have already cut $3.5 billion, or 40%, from the budget since 2013.

It’s clear budget cuts alone aren’t enough to solve the deficit. And as we cut into our schools, our classrooms, our university and our ability to prepare students for success, we are just leaving a legacy of lost opportunity.

I’ll keep trying to find compromise to solve the deficit, even though some say that can’t happen in an election year. But the answer to adult problems isn’t to create problems for children and youth who deserve a chance in this world.

Rep. Les Gara is a Democratic legislator from Anchorage and is vice chair of the House Finance Committee.

Updated: 
04/11/2018 - 3:36pm

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