OPINION: Education cuts will hurt, not help, economy
April 27th | Carey Restino
The current proposal by the Alaska Senate majority to cut education 5.7 percent while failing to offer up any new solutions to the state's fiscal crisis should infuriate every Alaskan, not only those with children currently in school or college in the state but anyone who is concerned about the state's economic future.
The Alaska Senate proposed cutting $69 million divided among Alaska's school districts and another $22 million in cuts for the already bleeding University of Alaska. In the short term, the cuts to the school system would mean larger classes, lost teacher jobs and cuts to enrichment programs. While districts with more resources may be able to pad their school budgets a bit, smaller districts in rural areas will suffer the most.
If you look at the state budget, Alaska's education funding may seem like a reasonable place to start cutting. It's a big number, after all — we spent an average of $18,000 per pupil in 2013 — the second highest amount per student in the nation.
But despite the high cost of Alaska's education system, it is already struggling with scary statistics like one of the highest drop-out rates in the nation. Only 76 percent of Alaska students graduated in 2015-16, up from 71 percent in 2013 but still way below the nation's average. One in four students misses at least 10 percent of school. High teacher turnover is a constant drain on resources, too, especially in rural areas. In short, it costs a lot to educate students in Alaska, just like everything else, and while the education system has come a long way since the days of statehood, it still has a long way to go to properly prepare Alaska's next generation to succeed. As Education Commissioner Michael Johnson told a group of education and policymakers gathered last week to discuss the state's education crisis, Alaska's education system has come a long way, but "we're not there yet."
So while Alaska's educators struggle to find ways to reach Alaska's youth and build bridges with the communities they serve, Alaska's lawmakers are proposing cuts that will surely erode that effort. It's unfortunate that most Alaska children are blissfully unaware of what is going on in Juneau, because if they did understand, they would likely throw a doozy of a temper tantrum. Alaska's Senate is currently proposing the ultimate pass-the-buck move and those who will be most impacted if their no-plan-is-the-plan tactic goes forward are those too young to do anything about it. Not only are they leaving the messy business of coming to terms with Alaska's fiscal crisis to future legislative bodies, they are suggesting cuts that would hurt those who will eventually be tasked with cleaning up the mess they are leaving behind.
But while the next generation of Alaskans is undeniably being handed the short end of the stick by lawmakers who are trying to balance the budget by cutting education instead of dealing with the necessity of some sort of tax to pay for government, there are other more immediate reasons that cutting education is short-sighted.
By now, most Alaskans know their future will not look the same as their past. Oil will not fund tomorrows schools or bridges or jails, something else will, and it depends on a healthy, diverse economy. Luckily, technological improvements, as well as our unique location in the world, provide lots of opportunities for investment in the state. We are not just attractive because of our natural resources anymore, but there isn't going to be one magic bullet on which the entire economy is going to rest. Instead, it will likely be a patchwork of smaller investors who will provide jobs for future Alaskans. The trick is going to be marketing our state to those small investors as a good place to do business.
So what do those businesses need? An educated labor force, for one, capable of being trained for unique positions. And what do we need to do that? High school graduates with a good education base and a state university system capable of responding to the training needs of the next generation.
Never mind the fact that having one of the most poorly functioning education systems in the nation is a big turn-off to investors with families and skilled laborers who might want to come to Alaska. The only way Alaska is going to succeed moving forward is if it is ready and willing to change, and a big part of that is education.
Cutting Alaska's education system is not a solution to Alaska's fiscal crisis - it is adding fuel to the fire. You've got to ask why lawmakers would choose that over a comprehensive fiscal plan that contains real solutions and the only answer you can come up with is that they are choosing to put off the hard decisions until another day — a day, perhaps, when they are not there.