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### Fighting for Education Reform: A Cause Worth Championing


Drawing from personal experience as an Alaska public school alum, I can attest to the noticeable decline in the quality of education offered by Alaska’s public school system.

In the past, Alaska stood proudly at the forefront of academic achievement, with students consistently ranking among the top performers nationwide. However, that era of excellence seems to belong to the past, particularly since Alaska now finds itself in the unenviable position of ranking 49th in fourth-grade reading according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

If we were to evaluate Alaska’s educational system through a business lens, it would resemble a failing enterprise on the brink of bankruptcy. What was once a source of admiration from other states has regrettably devolved into a system that has let down our students immensely.

Governor Mike Dunleavy, a former educator and school administrator, recognizes the dire need for improvement in Alaska’s schools. This realization prompted him to spearhead a significant reading initiative in 2022, garnering bipartisan support, aimed at reinforcing fundamental skills to ensure that students can read proficiently by the time they reach fourth grade.

With Governor Dunleavy no longer facing reelection, the present moment presents a prime opportunity to implement substantial educational reforms without undue interference. However, the National Education Association (NEA) could still pose a challenge, especially if they target candidates currently up for election, such as the entire Alaska State House of Representatives this year. The NEA’s influence over the state’s educational landscape may be a contributing factor to our students’ academic struggles.

Despite claims from the education sector, school funding in Alaska has remained relatively stagnant over the years. While the base student allocation—the primary funding mechanism—has seen minimal changes in the past decade, annual one-time budget injections have been necessary to sustain school programs. This financial stability is further complicated by the state’s ongoing efforts to fund essential services amidst a period of flat oil revenues and expanding Medicaid coverage.

Moreover, Alaska’s public schools have witnessed a gradual exodus of over 3,000 students in the last eight years, opting for alternatives like private schools, homeschooling, or relocating out of state due to declining birth rates. Despite this decline in enrollment, school boards have been reluctant to make tough decisions like consolidating campuses or revisiting core educational principles, remaining entrenched in outdated paradigms from a time of abundant oil wealth.

For instance, the Anchorage School District allocates a substantial \(80 million annually to administrative costs out of a total budget of \)547.5 million. With 2,424 teachers and over 2,900 additional staff members, including counselors and psychologists, the district employs a disproportionately high number of administrators—over 1,200 in total—compared to teachers, with lucrative compensation packages.

In Southeast Alaska, where 17 separate school districts operate, some with minimal student populations, resistance to consolidation persists despite the evident need for streamlining and efficiency.

Senate Bill 140, initially intended as a rural internet infrastructure bill, morphed into a union-backed initiative to increase education spending without addressing necessary reforms. Governor Dunleavy’s proposed budget for FY 2025 includes substantial allocations for various educational initiatives, such as school construction, the Alyeska Reading Academy, teacher development programs, and career and technical education, supplementing the already considerable per-student expenditure in Alaska.

Despite the ample financial resources allocated to education, the persistent demand for additional funding without a corresponding commitment to meaningful reform raises concerns. Governor Dunleavy’s proposals, including provisions for charter school authorization and teacher retention bonuses, were met with resistance from the education establishment, highlighting a reluctance to embrace innovative approaches that could drive positive change.

While some Republican legislators hesitated to support these initiatives, charter schools emerged as a beacon of hope within Alaska’s educational landscape. However, instead of championing these reforms, certain legislators opted to oppose the governor, potentially jeopardizing the chance for substantial progress in education policy.

As tensions simmer between Governor Dunleavy and certain Republican lawmakers, the prospect of overriding the governor’s veto looms large, reflecting a broader ideological divide within the party. The governor’s popularity among Alaskans, underscored by his successful reelection and high approval ratings, contrasts with the internal discord within the Republican ranks, exacerbated by conflicting views on education reform and fiscal priorities.

Despite the challenges ahead, there remains a glimmer of hope for collaboration and progress. Governor Dunleavy’s unwavering commitment to education reform, rooted in his background as an educator and school board member, underscores the significance of this issue for him personally. It is imperative for legislators to prioritize substantive reform over political expediency, especially considering the critical role education plays in shaping Alaska’s future.

In the midst of these debates, a new independent expenditure group has emerged, signaling support for candidates committed to genuine educational improvement rather than mere financial investment. This shift towards a reform-oriented approach underscores a growing desire for accountability and results within Alaska’s education sector.

Suzanne Downing, a proud graduate of Juneau-Douglas High School, serves as the editor of Must Read Alaska.