Suit aims to fix 20 years of failure in education appropriation

Posted: Tuesday, August 24, 2004

On Aug. 9, a group of parents, school districts, Citizens for the Educational Advancement of Alaska's Children (CEAAC) and NEA-Alaska filed a lawsuit in Alaska Superior Court. The suit charges that the state's funding of kindergarten through 12th-grade (K-12) schools violates the Alaska Constitution for two reasons:

Alaska does not invest enough money in its schools to provide an adequate education for all students; and

Alaska distributes what it does invest unfairly.

For several years now, the pros and cons of school funding litigation have been discussed within education circles. Filing a lawsuit was not a step we took lightly. We had no choice.

For two decades, the education community of concerned parents, school board members, administrators, teachers and support professionals has attempted to obtain adequate, equitable funding by lobbying the Alaska Legislature.

We have not been successful. The Legislature has failed our schools and children continually:

It has failed to invest enough money to make up for inflation.

It has failed to pass a funding formula based on student needs, not political whims.

It has failed to prioritize public education a constitutional mandate over projects favored by high paid lobbyists.

As always, the devil is in the details. One real devil in Alaska school finance has been inflation. As recently as 2001, Alaska was spending nearly the exact same amount per student as it spent in 1983. Yet over the past two decades, the value of each education dollar has eroded to just 52.7 cents.

This past spring, record-high oil prices enabled legislators to invest an additional $82 million in our schools for the 2004-05 school year. That amount was much appreciated.

Let's look at how it was spent: More than $37 million of the $82 million went to cover shortfalls faced by Public Employees' Retirement System (PERS) and Teachers Retirement System (TRS). The remaining $45 million allowed school districts to forestall massive layoffs and avoid cuts to most programs. Period.

The $82 million did not lower any child's class size. It did not restore any vocational education programs. It did not fund any after-school programs to help children meet standards. The increase preserved the status quo almost. It did not begin to backfill the funding hole that the Legislature has created over the past two decades.

Moore vs. State of Alaska, as the lawsuit is called, is not about the past two years. Moore addresses the past two decades of chronic and pervasive under-funding.

Gov. Frank Murkowski's budget experts estimate that schools will need a $90 million increase in 2005-06 to maintain the current, inadequate level of funding.

So where does this leave Alaska's schools and children? In desperate need of a long-term solution to school funding. We need a funding mechanism that's based on the needs of our children, not the political winds of the day.

Our children get only one chance at a quality education. Without qualified teachers, administrators and support professionals, early intervention, reasonable class size and adequately funded academic programs, our schools cannot excel.

We can never make up what has been taken from our children and our society in the last 20 years. But with a needs-based funding mechanism in place, we can help the children of today meet high standards.

Adequate school funding is a mission worth fighting for both in the legislative halls of Juneau and in the courts. If the Alaska Legislature adopts a long-term fiscal plan with an education funding solution, Moore vs. State of Alaska will have done its job and will be withdrawn.

Meanwhile, we are looking to the courts to tell lawmakers they must uphold the Constitution and provide an adequate education for every child.

Our children cannot wait another two decades. Alaska's children are Alaska's future. And our children deserve great schools.

Bill Bjork, the newly elected president of NEA-Alaska, is an honored math teacher who taught in Fairbanks for 21 years, and before that taught six years in Arctic Village. NEA-Alaska represents more than 12,000 teachers and education support professionals throughout Alaska.

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