Fate of correspondence school should make us wary

Posted: Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Rebecca Braun

Two years ago, when Gov. Frank Murkowski unveiled his first state budget proposal, he touted his plan to reduce spending by eliminating duplicative state services and improving efficiency.

Sounded good to me. I mean, is anyone for government waste?

But his proposals were not all as benign as he made them out to be. Take this one, from a March 5, 2003 press release from the governor's office: "Another duplicative program which is being eliminated is the central correspondence school at the Department of Education and Early Development."

The elimination of this unnecessary program would save the state $1.2 million, the administration claimed.

I should disclose that I worked for Alyeska Central School, the erstwhile state-run correspondence school, on and off from 1998 through 2001, both as a teacher and contract curriculum writer. The school wasn't perfect, but the governor's claim that it was duplicative was flat-out wrong.

Alyeska was the only school with subject-matter certified teachers who evaluated and responded to every piece of student work. Some distance education programs offered more choice, but they provided less accountability and less instructional feedback. In an era of increasing accountability, the policy decision seemed illogical.

If the policy logic was flawed, the cost-saving claims were worse: Unless the Alyeska students dropped out of school, the state would presumably pay for them to attend school elsewhere - and correspondence schools cost the state less per student than regular public schools.

Although the proposal wouldn't take effect without legislative approval, most Alaska families don't have lobbyists to help them understand and influence the process, and many panicked over what they assumed was a done deal. As they started scrambling to find other options the school's closure began to take on an almost Shakespearean air of inevitability. In the end the only concession these families got was a one-year reprieve, after which the school was to become a charter school, or close up shop.

Budget footnote: Low enrollment during the one-year grace period meant the school didn't generate enough state aid to cover its fixed costs, and the governor asked the Legislature for an additional $653,736 to keep the school operating through its final year.

The transition to a charter school operated by the Yukon Koyukuk School District has been rocky - and again, costly - and it's unclear the school will survive in any form.

I hope it does. I remember "only-in-Alaska" projects like the eighth-grader who used algebra and physics concepts to float a giant boulder out of his family's shipping lane on Prince of Wales Island. I still have thank-you notes from students for whom no other school quite met their needs. And I cringe at the thought of ceiling-high stacks of shrink-wrapped books and courses, including the one I wrote, going to waste.

My nostalgia hasn't totally crowded out the negatives: Some courses needed to be updated, some staff needed to be updated, and some systems needed to be updated. But that's no excuse to undermine a unique public institution that has helped meet the educational needs of thousands of grateful Alaska families.

Readers might recall another example of Murkowski's use of dubious budget claims to justify a controversial policy decision. Remember moving the ferry headquarters to a derelict building in Ketchikan? That "savings" evaporated as fast as you can say "asbestos-laden liability."

Many Southeast Alaskans fear the Alaska Marine Highway System is the governor's next target. Murkowski put a vocal critic, former Sen. John Torgerson of the Kenai Peninsula, in charge of revamping the system. Torgerson recently laid up the state's first fast ferry, the M/V Fairweather, as a negotiating tactic. A union official assures me we are still paying the employees while they and the boat are idle. Is that efficient use of public money?

No doubt, like Alyeska Central School, the ferry system could use an influx of creative energy. But the shenanigans with the fast ferry, along with avoidable and unavoidable schedule disruptions, are earning the system a reputation for unreliability. Alaskans who value the marine highway would be wise not to let uncertainty and confusion spiral into inevitability, lest we witness the decimation of another long-standing Alaska tradition.

• Rebecca Braun is co-editor of the Alaska Budget Report. Her email address is rbraun@alaska.com.

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