My Turn: School choice would benefit rural education

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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