The Kenai Peninsula Borough has been committed to providing a quality education for its youth for many, many years. The 12 years I spent in peninsula schools (six in Moose Pass and six in Seward) helped prepare me for the work force and for college. My parents and Seward High School principal guided me toward education as a career.
This is my 19th year with the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District. I know I make a difference in kids' lives because I have been told by kids and parents, and I get to see the difference in many cases. I am not the exception, I am the rule.
Recently the KPBSD showed its commitment to attracting and retaining quality teachers and support staff by offering a compensation package that is comparable to other districts on the road system. The unions and school board have
approved this contract offer.
The Kenai Peninsula Borough continues to fund education at the maximum amount allowed by state law and even kicks in some funds outside the cap. The leadership of our borough and school district value a quality education system, as does the general population of the Kenai Peninsula.
Despite our strong support of education here on the Kenai, the state has not been fair in its funding of our district. Even the Mat-Su school district is funded at a higher rate per student than the KPBSD, despite the fact that we have some schools across the water and more outlying schools along the road system. It does not take a million-dollar study to figure out that it costs more to educate kids on the Kenai. Common sense is enough to figure that out.
We are considered an urban district. While we do have some urban schools we are the most geographically diverse district in the state with many rural and Bush-type schools. The governor has made a commitment to fair funding in education. I imagine fair funding is something the Legislature would agree with the governor on.
I encourage the powers that be in Juneau to correct this unfair situation. Since the KPBSD has had inadequate funding for more than 15 years, I would think it would be a priority for the governor and legislators to correct the problem.
Federal and state mandates such as the No Child Left Behind Act and the High School Graduation Qualifying Exam are designed to raise expectations of schools, increase accountability and improve the quality of education overall.
With the continued decline of the family unit, schools will be hard-pressed to meet these expectations. If funding at the state and federal levels continues to decline either through cuts or by inflation (or both in Alaska's case), these expectations will be even harder to meet.
Of course, these mandates have their own problems. The No Child Left Behind Act does nothing to improve student and parent accountability. Schools get all the blame for students' lack of progress even if they have attendance problems, behavior problems, etc. Parents and students need to be held accountable for their part in the education process. Parents need to get kids to school with their basic needs met and ready to cooperate.
A graduation exam is not a bad idea, but an entrance exam makes much more sense. Why not test kids at 4 years of age and provide mandatory preschool for those kids who are not on track to be ready for kindergarten? In some areas that are way behind in student achievement, like certain areas in the Bush, it may be necessary to begin mandatory preschool at age 3 to help ensure success. Retentions should be mandatory for kids at the K-2 level who are not performing at grade level. Research has shown that retentions after second grade simply do not work.
If we do not offer preschool classes for all students and require preschool classes for kids who are behind, we are missing the best opportunity to ensure success in school. If we stand by and watch as kids who are still behind in reading progress into upper elementary and middle school, we have missed the best opportunity to get them caught up.
The more children that never become functionally literate the more we will need to spend on incarceration and public assistance. Eighty-five to 90 percent of the youths incarcerated in our state are functionally illiterate. How many of
those kids would not be in that situation had they learned how to read and function in society? How many functionally illiterate people can hold down a job that pays enough to make ends meet? How many functionally illiterate people must get support from the state because they can't get a job that pays enough to make ends meet?
Following are some ideas that I believe would be very helpful in meeting funding needs for education in Alaska:
1. Institute a statewide income tax.
A. Several million dollars would be raised from an income tax that would not come directly from the pockets of Alaskans. We would pay less in federal taxes and people who work here and live elsewhere would contribute to state funding.
B. People who live in areas that are unincorporated would contribute indirectly to funding of education. These funds could not be earmarked for education, but more money would go into the general fund and therefore more could go toward education. Currently, unincorporated areas do not contribute directly to education, and I believe they need to pay their fair share.
C. An income tax is the fairest source of revenue since it is based on the ability to pay.
2. Consolidate school districts in the Bush.
A. This would reduce the number of superintendents. It may also reduce the number of principals and other administrative support staff.
B. Regional learning centers will provide a higher quality education at a reduced cost.
3. Increase the amount of money a local district can contribute to education.
A. State statutes determine how much mon-ey a local district can contribute. The idea is to keep from developing a have/have not type of situation from developing. I say let communities and regions strive for excellence. Don't tie their hands with funding formulas in an attempt to ensure uniform mediocrity.
B. This may prompt regions that do not contribute to local education to find a way to do so. Quality schools attract quality people so there is motivation to have quality schools.
Our well-meaning governor would have you believe that the funding for education he has offered is adequate. Cuts in education funding and loss of dollar value through inflation is not adequate funding for education. Some legislators believe that funding should not be increased for education because it would only go to money-hungry teachers. One "Con Man" legislator even suggested that teachers work for free to help close budget gaps for districts. Does this mean he expects every working Alaskan should give up three weeks pay for education?
Research has shown that throwing money at education does not work. Research also has shown that attracting quality teachers and support staff does improve the quality of education. Research also has shown that kids who attend preschool classes are far more likely to enter school at or above grade level and stay that way through out their school career. We can pay now for quality education or pay later for incarceration and public assistance. The price tag for the latter will be much greater.
Please contact your legislators and the governor and let them know we cannot afford to let public education in Alaska continue decline in
Charlie Stephens has been a Kenai Peninsula resident since 1967. This is his 19th year with the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District. He currently teaches physical education at Soldotna Middle School.
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