A state senator recently asked me what one change I would make to improve Alaska's public education system. Amidst the swirl of potential reforms in my head I chose something simple but radical. "I'd lower class sizes to 15," I said.
"Try again," the senator said, laughing. "Too expensive."
Maybe 15 is a little extreme. I guess I'd settle for 20. My friend's 5-year-old attends kindergarten with 27 other students. How can one teacher, no matter how caring and talented, take care of - much less engage and teach - so many children? There are classes at Juneau-Douglas High School with 38 students - more students than chairs.
This year, the debate over how much money school districts need to provide an adequate education is front and center. Gov. Frank Murkowski proposed to add $64 million to the state's K-12 education budget. The House raised this to $70 million in HB 1, which they approved March 3 and sent to the Senate.
While $70 million sounds like big bucks, increases in retirement fund liabilities and other costs such as insurance and fuel will divert all but about $9 million of the new money before it reaches the classroom. A majority of districts, facing increasing state and federal mandates, project budget shortfalls even under the $70-million scenario.
Many lawmakers scoff at education advocates' assertions that more money will make a difference. "We can't just keep throwing money at the problems," they say, as if education is a giant toilet down which cash is flushed.
But when a real reform with proven potential to improve outcomes is suggested, they say it's too expensive.
Another favorite argument among some lawmakers is that greedy teachers will suck up any new funding with demands for higher pay. This usually comes from the same legislators who claim to be the biggest free-market advocates. What about the notion that more money and better benefits help attract and retain a more qualified and committed workforce? Does this fundamental capitalist tenet not apply to education?
Meantime, a key deadline passed yesterday. State law requires that by March 15 districts notify any tenured teachers who may be laid off in the fall.
On Monday House Speaker John Harris downplayed the March 15 deadline, suggesting that districts can rescind the pink slips as soon as the Senate acts on the education budget.
And Senate Minority Leader Johnny Ellis, who is pushing for a bigger boost to education spending, said he wouldn't trade adequate funding for early funding. "The most aggressive advocates would rather wait than settle," he told reporters in February.
Legislators' attitudes about layoff notices reveal the cultural divide between the Capitol and the classroom. Barbara Cadiente-Nelson, a former Juneau teacher, last month explained what's wrong with the annual cycle of issuing and revoking layoff threats to teachers.
In the spring of her first year teaching, Cadiente-Nelson was told her position would be cut due to a shortage of money. Although she knew it wasn't personal, she said, it was demeaning:
"Never have I worked so hard, with so much passion, and with so much purpose for so little thanks. ... My colleagues were understanding but uncomfortable. They respected me as I them, but the stigma of my being 'fired' changed our relationship."
By the time the Legislature approved a budget allowing the district to retain the 17 staff members threatened with layoffs, many had made other plans, according to Cadiente-Nelson: "One of my colleagues said, 'No thanks. I can't afford to take the risk of holding on to see if my position will be funded.' She left her science class and went on to her former line of work as a plumber."
Cadiente-Nelson also found work elsewhere.
I too dropped out of teaching after my first year. I was exhausted by the effort of trying to impart something of lasting value to each of my too-numerous students. In addition to the daily routine of planning and grading, battling the Xerox machine, attending meetings and responding to parent calls and emails, I had to cart around materials for a lab science class as a nomadic teacher with no classroom. Meantime, one student needed breakfast, another sought counsel on an abusive relationship, and another - a recovering addict - confided she had run away from her foster home.
On reflection, I'd suggest to the well-meaning senator who solicited my advice a much simpler reform: a requirement that all 60 state legislators work for one week a year as a substitute teacher in any of Alaska's public schools. I'm convinced that after five days of teaching, legislators would give our schools the money they need and our teachers the respect they deserve.
Rebecca Braun of Juneau is co-editor of the Alaska Budget Report and a former Juneau teacher.