Discussion on education past due

The discussion regarding how the state funds and delivers education has been pushed to the forefront as Gov. Sean Parnell declared in his State of the State address that 2014 would be the “education session.”

That our legislators and governor are now engaged in the discussion is good news. Too often, education issues are left to the last minute, or are used as political leverage on other issues. We’ve also seen education proposals from lawmakers who seem to have little understanding of how education is delivered in much of the state.

A number of proposals regarding education have been or will be introduced in the Legislature this session, including wide-ranging legislation unveiled by the governor last week. Ideas include increasing the base formula the state uses to fund education; eliminating the high school graduation exam and perhaps replacing it with another test requirement, such as the SAT; allowing students to test out of classes for which they can demonstrate proficiency; establishing elementary school reading programs; encouraging the growth of charter schools; and even repealing the required local contribution to education funding.

Also up for debate is a bill that, if approved, would ask voters to amend a portion of the state constitution prohibiting the use of public funds for private schools. Referred to as school choice, the change would allow public funds to be used to subsidize attendance at private schools.

The merits of all of these proposals should be debated vigorously. As crucial as a well educated populace is to the state’s future prosperity, it behooves lawmakers to spend at least as much time examining education as they do things like oil taxes.

That said, we’d also offer a word of caution, particularly when it comes to school choice. We have seen the effects of spreading a student population too thin here on the central Kenai Peninsula, where several school reconfigurations have been undertaken in recent years. While it sounds good at first blush, offering choice for some can have the net effect of reducing opportunity for all. That hardly sounds like government “for the good of the people as a whole” envisioned by the framers of Alaska’s constitution.

We’d also caution lawmakers and the governor not to make any one proposal contingent upon acceptance of another, as the governor appears to have done by urging lawmakers to pass the bill seeking a constitutional amendment. That may be how the political game is played, but aren’t we having this conversation because playing the game year after year is not doing anything to improve our children’s education?

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