This time, let’s do it right

Generating wealth only half the issue, responsible spending also key

Posted: Friday, August 11, 2006

Editor’s note: This is the fourth of five opinion columns the Clarion will run from the front-runners in the gubernatorial race for the primary election on Aug. 22.

“Countries that get addicted to selling their natural resources rarely develop their human resources and educational institutions . So after the ore has been mined, the trees cut and the oil pumped, their people are even more behind.”

—Thomas Friedman, New York Times Columnist

“Please, Lord, just give me one more oil boom, and I promise not to (squander) it away this time.”

— Alaska bumper sticker popular in the 1980s

We can do it right this time.

If Alaskans make the right decisions, we can be a world model for how to parlay non-renewable natural resource wealth into the permanent wealth that comes with a well-educated, highly skilled populace.

If we exercise our sovereign authority to receive a fair share of oil revenues and negotiate a gas pipeline agreement on Alaska’s terms, we can use the surplus to build the best public education system in the nation. That is why I’m seeking a third term as governor.

The first half of the equation is the money. The second half is what we do with it.

A gasline on Alaska’s terms

High oil prices and changes to the oil tax structure — whether this week in the special session or next year — should net Alaska an additional $2 billion a year. Getting a gasline on Alaska’s term will be even more challenging and it calls for a change in strategy.

The proposal on the table now is unfinished business. We should negotiate with the producers and open the door to other competitive proposals. We should invite all interested parties to explain how they would meet our terms: firm commitments and specific tasks, with state recourse if the requirements aren’t met; access to affordable gas for Alaskans on and off the Railbelt; Alaska hire through a project labor agreement and use of Alaska businesses; and separation of oil taxes from any gasline agreement.

Revenues from the gasline — perhaps $2 billion a year for more than 30 years — won’t start flowing for a decade, but in the meantime, we have the surplus revenue from high oil prices and revised oil taxes.

Squander — or invest with purpose?

We could squander the surpluses — there’s certainly precedent for that — or we could exercise the fiscal discipline to create the best school system in America right here in Alaska. Here’s how:

First, we must fulfill our Constitutional responsibility to fully (and fairly) fund all Alaska schools so that students have the resources and tools to learn to the best of their ability.

We should broaden how we think of education beyond K-12. Our concept of public education should start with pre-school and nutrition programs so that Alaska’s children are healthy and ready to learn from the earliest years. Just as education starts long before kindergarten, it continues long past high school. We need to expand the range and availability of vocational, technical and university programs so that all Alaskans have the chance to develop their intellects, skills and professions.

Accountability should be an integral part of our education system, by measuring the progress of each student and seeing that Alaska education dollars go into teaching and classrooms.

Finally, I propose we use some of the surplus to create a Trust Fund for Education Excellence. Trust earnings would supplement annual full funding of K-12 and expand early childhood, vocational, technical and university programs.

An emerging crisis

Current studies show only 60 percent of our high school students graduate and only 27 percent of those who do are academically prepared for college. Schools districts are left hanging year to year, as funding rises and falls at the mercy of world oil prices, state revenues and shifting political winds. Alaska ranks 29th in per pupil spending and is one of only 12 states with no statewide pre-school program.

Even with recent increases, education funding still lags behind real needs and rising costs. Educators, schools districts and parents have sued the state, demanding adequate funding for education. Teachers are frustrated and demoralized; in the latest blow, their retirement benefits went from one of the best in the nation to one of the worst.

Alaska has an opportunity now to avert this impending crisis and to build the best public system this country has ever seen.

This is the promise of our generation to the future. My goal is to bring Alaskans together to fight for and achieve what ought to be a birthright. There is no more worthy calling; the children of today and tomorrow deserve nothing less.

Tony Knowles is a former governor of Alaska.

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