In Alaska, public funds for education seem to be used to establish both public and private kingdoms. These bureaucracies have taken on a life of their own. They are structured to fund their own survival, not educate our rapidly failing student population.
According to the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development (DEED) in 2018-2019 the unorganized borough had a 15.72:1 student to teacher ratio — close to the national average of 16:1. The organized borough student — teacher ratio was 23.45:1.
Yet the unorganized borough Performance Evaluation for Alaska’s Schools (“PEAKS” — DEED’s protocol for reporting results) shows Math Proficiency during 2018-2019 averaging 25.17% and English Language Arts proficiency averaging 28.85%. That’s 75 of 100 children functionally illiterate in Math, and 71 of 100 functionally illiterate in Language Arts. In the organized borough, average Math proficiency was 39.45% or 60 out of 100 students functionally illiterate in Math. English Language Arts proficiency averaged 44.63%; that’s more than 55 out of 100 functionally illiterate in English. The Anchorage School District PEAKS Math Proficiency was 40.30% and English Language Arts proficiency 41.79%. The data also show student performance decreasing instead of increasing as the students get older and more scholastically experienced. Our children, Alaska’s most important resource, are not getting the education they deserve and our state will be worse for it in the coming years.
And yet costs for operating school districts are increasing. In 2018-2019, ASD had close to a three-quarter billion-dollar budget with a decreasing student population and student performance trending lower. Federal contributions, likewise, seem designed to increase with poorer performance, e.g. the poorer the student base does, the more Federal money the school district can obtain.
The state foundation formula, which determines the amount of money the school districts receive from the State, does not contain a metric that considers student performance. Instead, the funding formula measures dollar value of taxes contributed by the community, number of students in the district, special needs students (12x regular student), and other measures; none of which have anything to do with student performance.
Our children’s education has not mattered for a long time! It’s all about the money. Alaskan schools are big business with big lobbying arms and protectorate unions. One school in the Aleutian School district spends $138,000 per child. If we want our children to be successful, the entire state funding formula for school districts must be completely rewritten. Performance metrics must be a major factor so schools are encouraged to improve student performance. It sounds cold, but we must get a return on our investment — an educated populace.
The recent US Supreme Court ruling Espinoza V Montana Dept of Revenue removed any prohibition of the use of public funds for religious schools in 37 states. This ruling negates parts of the last two sentences of Article VII, Section 1, of the Alaska State Constitution, which states, “Schools and institutions so established shall be free from sectarian control. No money shall be paid from public funds for the direct benefit of any religious or other private educational institution.” The ruling also allows sectarian control of government schools.
Article IX, Section 6 of the Alaska Constitution, states “No tax shall be levied, or appropriation of public money made, or public property transferred, nor shall the public credit be used, except for a public purpose” – this, also, is now rendered unconstitutional.
The “Mini-Blaine Amendments,” to the constitutions of 37 states, were named after a failed US Constitutional amendment proposal from 1875, introduced by then Speaker of the House James Blaine. This amendment was intended to make religious control of public schools, as well as the use of public funds to support religious schools, illegal.
The Mini-Blaine Amendment was a required condition for Alaska entering the Union. Even though the Blaine Amendment to our national constitution failed, Alaska was still required to incorporate its restrictive language into its constitution. On June 30, 2020, the Supreme Court declared this to be a violation of the first amendment of the US Constitution. Thus, Article VII, Section 1, and Article IX, Section 6, of the Alaska State Constitution are now unconstitutional. The next Alaska State Legislature almost certainly must address the effects of this decision.
Because of Espinoza, for the first time in Alaska history, government education funds should flow to the child without public sector unions and the Alaska education industry’s influence. Education will no longer be just a business but a viable learning system for our children.Education funding is one of the largest components of the Alaska State budget. The next Legislature must be wise enough and strong enough to recognize the abject failure of the current Alaska education system, and that no funding increase will cure it. We must transform our education system. It must always be about the children – not about the money.
Kevin McCabe and his wife Linn live in Big Lake. He is a current Conservative Republican candidate for State House in District 8; Big Lake, Meadow Lakes, Knik, and Point MacKenzie.