Support of public education is the mom and apple pie of political campaigns, and looking back, I don't recall any campaign that spoke of anything less than full support. But with hours remaining in the legislative session, legislators' commitment to public education has not been met. The best offer now on the table, at $70 million, still results in cuts to most schools in the state. These cuts are not huge and devastating, but they will further erode public schools' ability to meet student needs.
The best case scenario increases the base student allocation in the foundation formula to $4,919, a $70 million increase over the current year. Many legislators are congratulating themselves for this increase. However, look more closely. Given escalating costs over which school have little or no control - such as retirement system contributions, health insurance premiums, sharply rising fuel prices - $85 to $90 million is needed for schools to break even. Seventy dollars doesn't reach the break-even point. It translates into a 2 percent loss to Alaska's classrooms.
Last session a small group of concerned parents forged Alaska Kids Count! in response to years of cutbacks to schools, and the prospect of further, devastating losses. A grass-roots initiative formed, connecting concerned citizens across the state, and the membership list grew. This year, the network's agenda was simple: to see improvements at the classroom level, with a focus on class size and direct instructional resources. For many participants, it was their first interface with the legislative process, and though daunting, individuals spoke up, chronicling their experiences as volunteers in classrooms across the state. Their voices reflected the concerns of involved, committed parents who invest countless hours in supporting Alaska's schools. These are not the voices of cynics, but of front-line volunteers.
Yet, despite eloquent and compelling testimony, the House and Senate majorities have not provided funding which meets school costs, let alone allows for improvements in class size or instructional resources. Meanwhile, teachers and students struggle to make the grade and the consequences of underfunding begin to show.
Many students who falter in first grade continue that struggle in second, and third. By fourth grade, corrections officials indicate they can begin to predict future prison capacity needs based on reading failure rates. With Alaska's corrections costs at approximately $40,000 per year per incarcerated adult, wouldn't it be wiser to invest in effective strategies to bolster student success than in expanding prisons? Compare state spending of $4,919 per student per year for education with $40,000 per year per inmate. Schools start looking like a bargain.
Consider also, 40 percent of youths held in detention facilities have some form of learning disability. A national study found that the average literacy level of incarcerated ninth-graders was fourth-grade or below, with 38 percent of these functionally illiterate. It's easy to imagine with adequate resources in place in our schools, many future inmates could acquire the reading and comprehension skills needed to succeed in school. Success in school carries over into the workplace and throughout a young person's life. The potential savings in dollars and human capacity is immense.
Public schools lie at the very foundation of a functioning democracy, and funding for a sound, well-rounded and high quality education is the responsibility of the Alaska State Legislature. Public education opens doors for a child to learn and grow, to be challenged and mature into a successful, contributing member of his or her community.
We look to the Alaska State Legislature to live up to this charge and provide the funding necessary for every student to succeed and be challenged, no matter where they fall in the ability spectrum. Schools are at the heart of every community and ubiquitous in their presence. We take them for granted. However, there is an underlying public expectation that schools should be more than mediocre learning environments. We expect our schools to be great places. We are, after all, the wealthiest state in the nation. Why then, can't we afford outstanding, if not exceptional, schools? Can we afford to have anything less?
Juneau resident Mary Hakala is the coordinator of Juneau-based Alaska Kids Count! and parent of three in Juneau public schools.