Gov. Sean Parnell wants to see widespread education reform by the end of the legislative session in April. Setting goals is good, but what’s even better is setting achievable ones.
Education reform can happen in 90 days, but will the reforms be properly vetted, researched and implemented in that time?
Something as far-reaching as overhauling our public education system shouldn’t be rushed.
What voucher model will Alaska follow, and what effect will that have on Alaska’s public schools? What happens if a private school underperforms after receiving state funds? Will it still receive state funding without any way for the state to ensure results? And if a community turns down a new charter school, will the education commissioner be able to override that decision?
These questions and many more are unanswered, and there’s only two months left in the 28th Legislature. Waiting until the 29th Legislature is the right choice.
Lawmakers need time to analyze how vouchers have been implemented in other states. If education reform was the only bill on the table, perhaps there would be enough time to find the best fit for Alaska’s unique needs.
Individual items like doing away with the high school exit exam and increasing base funding are doable this year. Vouchers are not. We’re not saying vouchers are a good idea or a bad one, but whatever the state’s direction, it needs to be thought out so the program doesn’t turn out like the Affordable Care Act website.
According to a 2013 Washington Post article, Lower 48 students have used vouchers for unaccredited schools. States have been left with little to no oversight of what students learn and whether their teachers are qualified.
If the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster decided to start a private school in the back of a bowling alley, the state may not have a choice but to give the school tens of thousands of dollars — or more — in vouchers. Without understanding the pitfalls other states have fallen into, Alaska will be more likely to repeat the mistakes of others instead of learning from them. On the other hand, some states have found success using vouchers, which allowed students from low-income families to attend schools they otherwise would never have had the opportunity to enroll in.
More importantly, is the education reform touted in HB278 and SB139 the change Alaska needs? A survey paid for by the National Education Association-Alaska reveals a different problem. According to educators surveyed, factors outside school walls are what’s keeping students from learning and graduating on time. Drugs, drinking, abuse and poor home environments are to blame for poor performance, teachers say. These issues are ones that vouchers and funding increases aren’t likely to fix. Tossing money at the problem is hacking at the branches instead of going after the root.
Alaska’s education system needs to evolve as times change, but such a widespread overhaul in so little time could provoke more problems than solutions if it isn’t done right the first time.