Legislators need to take more realistic approach to education policy

The House Education Committee this week opted to hang onto a bill, at least for the time being, that would have ended social promotion of third graders in Alaska schools.

The decision to hold the bill until next session is a good idea, particularly as the measure represents yet another unfunded mandate and serves to illustrate a disconnect between legislators and the consequences of the legislation they propose.

On the surface, ending the practice of social promotion — taking non-academic factors into account to promote a student to the next grade level — sounds good.

The measure goes on to require school districts to set up a variety of literacy programs for those students, including tutoring, summer and home reading programs.

What the bill doesn’t do is allocate to cover the costs of implementing new requirements.

And while the intervention strategies are good ideas, it’s worth noting that most school districts already have programs in place to identify and help struggling learners. Indeed, delivering education is what schools do, and considering the diversity of schools across the state, social promotion seems to be one of those issues that would be better left to local policy makers, rather than with a one-size-fits-all mandate.

What the bill does do is insinuate that school districts aren’t doing an adequate job, and require legislative micromanagement. Certainly, oversight of public schools falls under the purview of the Legislature, but taking a scatter-shot approach to education policy does our schools a disservice.

Legislation like this always seems to boil down to accountability, with legislators demanding some sort of assurance that public money is being spent effectively. We’ve heard arguments from some legislators and the administration this session that school funding has been increased over the past three years, with little improvement in statewide graduation rates as an argument against additional funding.

School districts counter that with ever-increasing costs, additional funding is needed simply to maintain the status quo, and point to other areas of improvement, as evidence that funds are being put to good use.

House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, discussed education funding with reporters on April 5. He told reporters in Juneau that “there are truly members that think that we should not increase education funding until we have accountability and as I’ve explained to them, I’m OK with accountability, but you have to be able to tell them what you want so that they know what to go out and produce. And if we can’t tell them what (we) want, then how do we hold back that funding?”

As we’ve noted before, implementing changes to the public education system takes time. It takes 13 years to educate a student from kindergarten to 12th grade; seeing changes in the end results — graduation rate — after just three years of funding changes isn’t realistic. And if the Legislature thinks oil taxes can be complicated, they should try spending some time with a school district budget.

Before proposing any more education mandates, legislators need to do their own homework, provide educators with the tools and resources needed to do their job, and then get out of the way.

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