Legislators need to allocate more money to schools

Posted: Sunday, February 09, 2003

Education -- and what it costs -- clearly is on Alaskans' minds and in the headlines.

With the 23rd Alaska Legislature still in its infancy, 22 bills have been filed dealing with education, at least eight of those focusing on how to better fund it.

A recently released study for legislators found inequities in how the state funds schools. Depending on what legislators do with the study, which validates what many school officials have been saying for some time, that could be good news for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District.

Without more money, the district will be forced to make harsh, unpopular decisions. Approximately 50 full-time teaching positions already have been eliminated from next year's proposed budget. Curriculum, support staff and co-curricular travel budgets are all possible cuts.

It's obvious how much residents support the school system, because whenever cuts are discussed there's a hue and cry against cutting. That's pretty good evidence that the school district is offering a relevant education to peninsula students.

Residents who participated in the first constituent teleconference of the Kenai-Kodiak legislative caucus last week expressed concerns about current funding levels for education. One person correctly noted "Education is the cornerstone to a high quality of life on the Kenai Peninsula."

But with the state in the midst of its own belt-tightening, where is more money for education going to come from? Without a surplus of bucks in anybody's treasury, if the state gives more money to education, it will have to give less money to something else. But what should that something else be?

That's a brain teaser that belongs on the kind of qualifying exam that elected officials should be forced to pass before they take their oath of office.

Alaskans have made it clear a quality education should be one of the state's top priorities. Many have said they're even willing to pay for it -- by paying a tax or by giving up part of their permanent fund dividend or by establishing some kind of endowment that would go to education.

But because there is a group of Alaskans who consistently and loudly tell lawmakers they don't want to pay taxes and they don't want their dividends touched, it's unlikely elected officials will do either, unless ...

Unless, elected officials hear from a louder, more coherent group of Alaskans that it is irresponsible not to do more for education. Unless they hear loudly and clearly that Alaskans are willing to pay for the kind of quality education they want and deserve, and would even go so far as paying a tax or giving up a portion of their dividend or sacrificing some other state service to give more to education to make it happen.

The "squeaky wheel" shouldn't dictate government's direction, but more and more it seems as if it does. So perhaps a new kind of "squeaky wheel" is in order -- one that offers to be part of the solution.

If you are concerned about the future of education, you need to let legislators know -- now. If you are concerned about the kinds of cuts the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District is considering because of its budget deficit, you need to let legislators know -- now. If you are willing to pay more to ensure that Alaska students get the best education possible, let legislators know -- now. If you see an area where the state is putting money that would be better spent on education, let legislators know -- now.

The people talking to legislators should not be just teachers and school officials, because they can be perceived as having too much of a special interest in the outcome of more money for schools. Parents, students and employers should be delivering the message about the need to adequately fund schools. The voice of business people might be particularly effective because the quality of any community's work force is related to the quality of the education that work force receives. A healthy economy doesn't exist apart from a sterling school system.

More money isn't the answer to every problem, but in the case of Kenai Peninsula schools, more money is desperately needed. It's needed for the sake of the students whose future literally depends on the quality of their education. And it's needed for the sake of the state whose future literally depends on those students.

The bumper sticker is right: "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance."

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