Alaskan Activists Battle Sluggish Legislature for Reform

Alaskan parents are vowing to make this the year of the "education election". What was supposed to be the "education session" of 2014 was a big disappointment to the parents of the group Great Alaskan Schools (GAS).

"We want to make public education a really big issue for people," said Becca Bernard, one of the parents involved in Great Alaska Schools. "We care about our kids' schools, and we care about having strong public schools for all children. We realized after this session that that is not as firmly supported in this state as we would've thought."

Richard Mauer, reports for the Alaska Dispatch, and shares that the 20 core members of the grassroots organization spent Sunday trying to decide what to do next. The group, with no official structure, says they are not going away.

They say they are going to make the legislature hear them and their plans for doing that include: holding interviews and forums for candidates; creating an education test for incumbents and challengers; giving their approval to candidates who support their key issues, like providing adequate funding to public schools so that the schools can restore lost positions in Anchorage and districts around the state to minimize lay-offs in the coming years.

"We're focused on one issue and one issue only, and that is quality education for every child in Alaska," said Jessie Menkens, mother of a preschooler and a third grader at Winterberry Charter School.

During a public hearing in February, co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Pete Kelly (R-Fairbanks) made a point of asking each witness, in a case concerning using public funds to support private and religious schools, whether or not they were teachers' union members. The parent-members of Great Alaska Schools said they did not want animosity against the unions to get in the way of supporting better education for Alaskan children.

The main focus of the GAS parents is to restore per-pupil funding (otherwise known as the base student allocation (BSA) to the amount it was in 2011, and then to inflation-proof it for at least three years. They did not get anywhere close to what they wanted. The group is non-partisan and will support any legislator who does not oppose their funding requests.

According to Anchorage Daily News reporter, Kathleen McCoy, other educational issues were being addresses at the hearing on Tuesday, as well. Diane Hirshburg, who is professor of education policy and director of the Center for Alaska Education Policy Research within the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage delivered an analysis of programs which are aimed at producing Alaska Native teachers, who, at the present time, make up less than 5% of the state's teaching force. She also spoke about how teachers in rural Alaskan schools feel about their experience. Hirshburg is beginning an analysis of the same survey questions for urban teachers in Alaska.

She knows that big reforms are needed, like raising the BSA. Hirshburg knows something better needs to be done in Alaskan schools, and begins her list of needed changes with: a new system for teaching Alaska's least well-served students; considering community-owned and managed schools; beginning tribal schools; empowering Alaska Native education in every community.

Hirshburg notes that the BSA in Alaska is not based on any empirical data.

"It's based on increasing an amount set by a group of legislators a number of years ago, based on how much they wanted to spend." With the way the school funding formula is set up, "we haven't been able to ask critically, ‘are we spending the right amount of money in the right places?' "

07 2, 2014
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