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An $84.5 million increase in education funding is a lot of money, but money well spent: It is an investment in our most valuable resource, our children. As the chairman of the House Special Committee on Education, I am very proud to say that the state House for 2004 made education its true top priority this year.
Even though most are delighted as I am that we voted to approve the increase, some say that the $84.5 million isn't enough. Others say we are paying for things we should not be in the schools. Although the Legislature had increased funding in the past, schools continued to report a decline in funding. Why the discrepancy? We suspect increases in costs, but more is involved than just insurance, salary, and maintenance. Schools are required by state and federal law "not asked, but required" to do so many other things in addition to the "three R's."
Schools offer enrichment beyond the three R's. This enrichment helps ensure productive citizens graduate and contribute positively to society. Unfortunately, schools have over the years given back so much of this enrichment that one wonders if even the essential three R's are under assault.
We, your elected representatives -and that means your elected representatives in Washington as well as in Alaska - and those we represent, have insisted that schools allow all of our children to be fully integrated into the school setting in the least restrictive environment. The schools have responded as required. School classrooms include children with orthopedic needs, children with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, seizure disorders, children that are abused and frightened, children who through no fault of their own are homeless, children with limited social skills, children with behavior problems, and children who are brilliant.
Often children arrive and enter the classroom not knowing their letters or numbers while their classmates are fully capable of reading entire books. Imagine how the teacher compensates for those extremes with 25 or 30 kids in a classroom. Some eighth graders and high school students still have difficulty doing fractions and writing a good paragraph. Imagine again how their teachers compensate for this when they have 40 or more students in a classroom.
Schools do even more. They feed children breakfast as well as lunch, clothe those who arrive without mittens and coats and proper footwear, to allow them to have outside recess. There are also children who several times a day require medicine, others who require shots for diabetes, inhalers for allergies, and for a number of other treatments prescribed by their physicians. Sometimes children are sick when they arrive, and sometimes they get ill after an hour or two. In any case these children need a couch and a washcloth, and someone to supervise them, locate the parent, and generally care for them until the parent arrives. Some children arrive with bruises that, due to their location and severity, are required by law to be investigated.
Schools screen every child for vision, hearing and other essentials and refer students when necessary. When lice appear in one child's hair, the entire class must be screened. Those with the evidence must be isolated and sent home and not readmitted until another exam verifies the absence of lice.
Schools take care of all of these problems and still are charged with the education of our future workforce and citizens.
Who could do this if not the school? You could say, "Gatto, why is it my responsibility to pay for all of these 'non-essentials?'" Lest we forget, these requirements are put on the schools so that learning can and will occur. The schools willingly accept these requirements and work hard to fulfill them. Parents used to do much of this and you have every right to wonder how schools came to substitute for so much of what parents used to do. Was it their choice, or ours? I do, however, continue to applaud every single parent who assumes primary responsibility, as they should, but I cannot neglect the children who don't have this wonderful blessing.
Today's children will someday build the gas line and take over from us as the movers and shakers of this great state. Today they are sitting in classroom seats. Tomorrow, they will take our place, have families of their own, take our jobs, be our leaders. Let's hope and pray we did our job right because our future depends on it.
Rep. Carl Gatto is a former high school teacher and chairman of the House Special Committee on Education. He resides in Palmer, Alaska.