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School fixes take time to pay dividends

Posted: Friday, February 18, 2011

Last week, Sen. Kevin Meyer, co-chair of the Senate Education Committee, said he came to the realization that simply boosting funding to school districts is not the answer to challenges facing the state's education system. That mirrors Gov. Sean Parnell's reluctance to spend more money on schools "producing a product for our students that is less than acceptable."

The Legislature has increased education funding over the past three years, and is now looking into other ideas, such as teacher incentives and raising the mandatory attendance age from 16 to 18. Plans are in motion to pay for Parnell's proposed merit scholarship program using funds from an oil royalty account. A push for pre-kindergarten programs also appears to be gaining momentum.

These all are ideas worth serious consideration, but the Legislature is overlooking a key element when it comes to changing an institution: Time.

Let's be realistic. Systemic change does not happen overnight, nor will a single election cycle be long enough to see results. Members of the Legislature are pointing to the boost they've given education funding over the past three years, and wondering why a corresponding jump in state graduation rates hasn't occurred.

But an elementary and secondary education is a 13-year process, from kindergarten through the senior year of high school. For students already in high school and at risk of dropping out or failing to graduate, extra funding has been too little, too late. And for those students young enough for changes to make an impact, well, they're still a few years away, if not a decade, from contributing to the state's graduation statistics.

Indeed, for all its faults and criticisms, the federal No Child Left Behind legislation recognizes this and calls for incremental improvement in student performance over a period of several years.

Which brings us back to Sen. Meyer's comments. More money alone does not buy better graduation rates, but for school districts across the state, it does buy time. Paying for education in a state as diverse as Alaska -- even in a single district as diverse as the Kenai Peninsula -- is a challenge. Needs in Barrow or Fort Yukon are going to be different than needs in Palmer or Juneau.

Even in our district, there are schools inaccessible by road as well as schools in relatively urban settings, each with a different set of challenges.

What school districts do have in common is a set of rising costs over which they have very little control. Anyone who has paid a utility bill recently knows those costs have gone up. School districts, like other employers throughout the state, also face increasing health care costs. And contributions to state public employee and teacher retirement systems, which used to amount to about 5 percent of payroll, are now more than 20 percent of payroll. What that means is that additional money coming into a school district generally is spent simply maintaining what already is in place, rather than launching new initiatives.

If the Legislature really wants to dig into the state education system, which falls under its purview, it certainly will not be an easy fix. It's a roll the sleeves up, stay late at the office, put in some hours over the weekend project.

And if some new initiatives look to be good solutions, they will require two more things that the Legislature appears reluctant to give: more money to make them happen, and time to let them work.



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