This editorial appeared in last Thursday's Anchorage Daily News:
Nothing better illustrates the urgent need to fix state finances than the funding crises now afflicting school districts throughout Alaska. State funding has long failed to keep pace with inflation, and the bills are finally coming due.
For many years, districts have stinted on pay raises, making it difficult to retain and recruit top-notch teachers. Current salary increases, though modest, add up rapidly in a labor-intensive business. Pension costs have also escalated, due to the three-year stock market slide.
The feds have imposed new responsibilities with the No Child Left Behind Act, but they have not supplied enough money to meet those mandates. Rising energy costs inflict a toll on districts too.
Some school districts are willing to pay more taxes to fill some of the funding gaps. The state's education funding equity rules, however, bar many of them from boosting their tax support for schools.
The double whammy of increasing costs and funding shortfalls has produced near-catastrophic school budget gaps: $26 million in Anchorage. $8.5 million in Fairbanks. $8 million in Mat-Su. $2.1 million in Juneau. $5 million in Kenai.
With so many districts facing dire financial times, key legislators are finally beginning to seriously consider a boost in state school funding. They say the big problem is how to pay for it.
In fact, Alaska has plenty of untapped capacity to pay for its schools. The problem is that our political leaders are afraid to use it. Alone among the states, we have no statewide sales or personal income tax. Alone among the states, we have a $27 billion savings account that produces hundreds of millions of dollars a year that could be spent on state services. Alone among the states, we give residents a check just for being smart enough to live here.
We should be alone among the states in the quality of our public education system.
All but the most shortsighted Alaskans realize that we cannot have a healthy economic future and productive, well-informed citizens without strong public schools. Lawmakers who ask "How we can afford to increase school funding?" are asking the wrong question. The real question is "How we can afford not to?"