Those of us who advocate for schools and children have had a troubling summer. It started with a legal setback in the school funding lawsuit. This was followed by legislative hearings that prompted a chorus of passionate voices that rebutted the judge's ruling. Rarely has the disconnect between the courts and the real world been displayed so dramatically.
In June Judge Sharon Gleason ruled against the plaintiffs in the Moore vs. State of Alaska adequate funding lawsuit. A coalition of parents, educators and school districts challenged the constitutionality of kindergarten through 12th-grade funding.
Judge Gleason ruled that the inflation-ravaged school funding formula does not violate the constitution. She did find that the education system violates the constitutional rights of some students in a few small districts. She called for additional aid to these districts a positive step.
Three weeks after the Moore ruling, Alaska's school superintendents, financial officers, school board members, and other leaders hammered home a common message to legislator s school funding is critical for student achievement.
The Joint Legislative Education Funding Task Force has been meeting to review school funding issues, focusing on district cost factors that the state uses to divide up the education funding pie. These hard-working lawmakers took extensive testimony from leaders of districts from Southeast to the North Slope and from Anchorage to the Aleutians. Almost without exception, they told one story: To do the job they're expected to do, they must have more resources.
The parade of dedicated school leaders provided dramatic repudiation of the judge's ruling. These experts know that funding falls far short of getting the job done. And a number of legislators shared their own stories of the daunting challenges facing our schools:
Energy costs cut deep into district budgets.
Budgets are strained as educators strive to meet the needs of special education students with intensive needs.
Attracting and keeping quality teachers and other educators gets increasingly difficult. Rural districts can rarely offer the higher salaries that help offset their geographical isolation, housing shortages, and other challenges. Even urban districts are finding a shrinking pool of applicants. Meanwhile, Alaska's ability to grow and train our own teachers remains insufficient.
Class offerings in many districts are cut to the bone, and even into the bone. Schools have eliminated foreign languages, music, art, high-level math and science, and other "extras."
Pupil transportation costs divert money from the classroom.
Vocational/technology programs have fallen victim to budget cuts. Yet these "vo-tech" programs are vital for our economy.
As legislators wrestle with the cost differentials among districts, the new school year is starting. Because Judge Gleason stayed her ruling for a year, the state will be able to offer the much-needed help to a few districts.
And in the meantime, this year offers opportunities for school advocates to move forward together. To mobilize our communities and work with legislators and the governor to achieve our common goal: A quality education for every child in Alaska.
Bill Bjork, a long-time math teacher from Fairbanks, is president of NEA-Alaska, which represents more than 13,000 teachers and education support professionals throughout Alaska.
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