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My Turn: School choice would benefit rural education

Posted: February 26, 2014 - 12:04am

Most parents want what’s best for their children. They want them to be successful and receive the education they need to qualify for a well-paying job or occupation.

Education — the gaining or transfer of knowledge — is one of the basic functions of life. It’s why we have a brain connected to a nervous system that feeds it information from our five senses. Much of human activity is intended to affect how education is accomplished. Attentive parents spend much of their time teaching and nurturing their children.

Education is big business. We spend vast amounts of money on schools where educators add to the effort. Education is a major part of the state budget. Education doesn’t start with preschool or end with a college degree or even a Ph.D.

Then there is “the media.”

Ours is called the Information Age. People with a good idea of how to better convey information have founded new schools, started news networks, created the Internet and improved it, invented computers, smartphones, fax machines and other gadgets. With these aids to communication, information is literally flying everywhere at the speed of light.

When it comes to formal education, these innovations have rendered the education model of one teacher at a chalkboard in front of a class of 15 to 40 students expounding on some chapter in a textbook as obsolete as a Princess phone.

Our standings in national test scores witness to the need for improvements in Alaskan education. For example, our fourth-grade reading scores for low-income students were dead last nationally; reading scores for fourth-grade middle/upper-income students were 49th out of 51.

Parental interest in improved ways of schooling has given rise to homeschooling, charter schools and a demand for other educational options.

In many cases, the private sector is stepping up to the plate and providing solutions. In Alaska, there more than 2,200 students are paying tuition to attend the top five (by attendance) private K-12 schools.

The constitution of the state of Alaska needs to be amended to allow the Legislature to provide more families the option of choosing the schools their children attend. A sentence in Article VII of the state constitution, sometimes referred to as the Blaine Amendment, has been interpreted by state courts as prohibiting the Legislature from directly or indirectly funding alternative schools.

Many Alaskans are content with the offerings of their neighborhood public schools. For those who are not satisfied, the Blaine Amendment needs to go. In education, one size doesn’t fit all. There are too many different needs for one giant bureaucracy to effectively meet.

Some have expressed skepticism that “school choice” could work in the Bush. Such a view suggests a lack of vision or a lack of knowledge of the many innovations in distance learning available to anyone, especially those with a computer and access to the Internet. These offerings from the private sector are made to order for the Bush, particularly in villages with too few students to qualify for a school.

Educational achievement in Alaska could take a giant leap forward if parents were free to use their child’s government-provided educational allotment on the school of their choice, whether it be a public or private program.

Passage of SJR9 and HJR1, which are ready to be voted upon by the Legislature, is required to put the question on the 2014 ballot so Alaskan voters can decide this issue. If you haven’t expressed your views on this issue to your state senator and representative, now is the time to do so.

• Jess T. Ellis, DDS, MS, has been an itinerate endodontist practicing in Alaska for 25 years. He has testified before the legislature as an advocate of choice in education.

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Richard Cook
Richard Cook 02/26/14 - 08:02 pm
@Tim Miller Good points.

I am afraid that I agree with you in part at least. I have no kids in school now and I would like to get some money back too. We are in the same boat in a sense. If you have more details of your plan to give funds to those who do not have kids in school I for one would like more details to see if it workable and realistic. How would you administrate this? As a tax rebate or a tax deduction? From which taxes on our hard earned money would we give a rebate?

**When did it become the governments job to provide more options for parents? I don't have kids and I don't mind contributing to public schools. But I strongly oppose my hard earned tax dollars paying for someone's kid to attend a private school.**

In Alaska, that has not been the case. The government has not really offered many options that I am aware of. That is why a constitutional amendment is needed and proposed. To allow more choices. Choice is the key word here. Choices not mandates. Most people that I know really like choices. They seem to get pretty hot under the collar when you force them to do things. People like to buy but they despise being sold. If the amendment passes then that is what the people want to do. If it does not pass then we retain the status quo. That is how the political process works.

A long time ago we as a people decided that it is smart to educate our people. It is smart and it is far cheaper than not educating them. I know that not everyone will agree to any concept but overall most people will say that education is not only important, but is critical and essential. Almost as essential as food and water and air. Can we all possibly agree on that one thing?

If you cannot agree to that one thing - that education is essential not an option - then we are not living on the same planet and we cannot go beyond lets take a vote. I am certain that most reasonably educated people would agree that education of the next generations cannot be eliminated to save money.

If in fact most of us can agree with the basic principle that we need to educate the next generation of our people, then we have a common ground to begin. Then it becomes a matter of what is the best way to do this? What are we doing now and are we doing an excellent job for everyone? For most of the students, it is fair to say that we are doing OK. But are we really doing all we can for everyone we can? How many students are slipping through the cracks? How many drop out or achieve a fraction of their ability?

Now the key thing and think about this please, Can we do better somehow? I do not know. I certainly do not have all the answers but certainly if we work together giving people some fair and reasonable options to find out what may work better for them. Parents, at least most parents, have their family's best interest at heart. And they know what is best for their family. And they are not bound or "snowed" by the garbage that comes to us from Washington.

I love the schools here. They did well for my family when they were in school here. But I honestly know some of the students needed something more. And they did not get it. It is not the fault of the teachers in my judgement. It is the system. It is designed as one size fits all. What if we went to Freddy's and they only carried size 8 dresses. That is it. For everyone else they would have to fly to Seattle. That would be a fatal flaw for them if they would do that. Well education maybe is a bit like that although certainly not exactly.

Students are NOT all the same. And if we wish to continue to be blind to that fact, we will continue to give very mediocre results for a portion of those students. Why should we be satisfied with average results for students that might excel if allowed to learn a different way? How do our students rank as compared to students around the world?

If you were having brain surgery or heart surgery would you be happy with a doctor that got an average education?

If your retina detached, would you want an "average" doctor to do eye surgery on your eye to try to get your sight back?

If your life or freedom was on the line in a trial would you be happy with an *average* lawyer to defend you?

If you were getting a root canal, would you be happy with just an average dentist?

Of course not.

Then why should we be happy with mediocre or average results for some students? Why not try to be better? We can be better if we want to be.

I am happy with the education my family received here but still, we have a chance to do more. To be better than we are now. It is a never ending process of change and challenge.

So please do not be afraid of trying something that has a good chance to improve life for all of us even though we do not have kids in school.

"The age of a man is proportional to the amount of pain he feels when he hears a new idea." Not sure who said that but I remember it from one of my classes in school.

John Stuart Mill:
"We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavouring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still"

Lets get this on the ballot and get a fair and open and honest debate.

Thanks for listening.

David Nees
David Nees 02/26/14 - 09:07 pm
Vic Fischer and Judge Dimond were right

1955 November 22
A younger Vic Fischer writes a proposal for Article VII. Almost identical to SJR9,
December 15 the committee on Preamble and Bill of Rights releases their version. Includes third sentence.
Dec 26, 1955 some delegates and public meet in Juneau to discuss, third sentence which is placed in three areas of constitution.
They reject all of them. Reason, state cannot afford Socialism of Health Education and Welfare.
Judge Dimond writes memorandum to convention January 1956.
Socialism is expensive.

Karl Ashenbrenner
Karl Ashenbrenner 02/28/14 - 09:42 am
Everyone who is

for these amendments constantly tout "choice". But in the same vein many try to restrict a womans choice whether or not to have an abortion. Choice on one hand but not on the other. Parents have a choice currently...private and religious schools are available to parents who want to have their kids not go to public schools. The issue is whether we pay for it. Same argument that the anti choice folks tout as the reason to restrict abortion. "We don't want to use public dollars to pay for it." Methinks the arguments are kind of hypocritical, on one public dollars, on the other public dollars yes! By passing this education bill and having a Constitutional amendment you are restricting my choice not to have my tax dollars go towards private or religious schools. Which is more important your choice or mine?

Richard Cook
Richard Cook 02/28/14 - 01:37 pm

It is quite a stretch to think that Jess' attempt to try to find a way to improve our education system is in any way connected with getting abortions. I see no connection whatsoever. I read and reread Jess' opinion and could not see even one reference to abortion or abortion funding.

If we are on the same page, trying to improve our education system and to make our system more inclusive to connect with those who have been lost in it? If we truly stand for better education for all and not just the ones who can afford to pay twice? Then we need to have an intelligent discussion about what is happening. Not diverge upon an irrelevant change of subject.

Just ask yourself, are you completely happy with the results of what we are doing now? Can you honestly say that we as a people are doing the best that we can? Should we not try to reach those we are failing? If you believe in your heart that we cannot do better, then it is fair to argue that. But if you take a fair and unemotional look at what is happening, a person might reasonably say, lets look at this closer and see what can be done.

***Which is more important your choice or mine?***
Karl you had a very valid point whether or not you realize it. Of course the correct answer is neither is more important. We are equal or should be equal. But no one or two or even a dozen of us have the right to control the education of everyone else. This should be a policy decision based public discussions and a public vote either directly by ballot or indirectly through the legislative process.

You have shown intense interest in education because of your reply. Perhaps we all should do some reading into the results of those states that already allocate funds those who are less affluent, those who are being bypassed with the system? Then once we have taken the care and time to find out facts, real facts, then we can decide what is best for Alaska. And after we sort though it all, we decide it is not right to change things as they are now, then let the chips fall where they may. But at least we tried our best.

Sometimes the final answers are not black and white. There may be shades of gray. Some sort or reasonable compromise.

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