GUEST COMMENTARY: Education will suffer with further budget cuts

It’s often said that teachers hold the future in their hands, but this year in Alaska, it’s the Legislature that will decide the fate of our students.

I’ve been teaching for nearly 20 years — the majority at Lathrop High School. There’s nothing as satisfying as walking out of my classroom at the end of a long day knowing my students learned something new and took one step closer to lifelong success.

This weekend, I joined fellow educators and public employees at a rally to keep Alaska open for business. A government shutdown would be bad for the economy, and hurt Alaska businesses. The Senate Majority’s proposed $69 million cut to public schools would be devastating for Alaska’s students.

After five straight years of increased class sizes and program cuts across the state, what will happen to students next year? What would the impact of the Senate’s proposed austerity measures be on the Alaska economy for years to come?

In the last several weeks, hundreds of teachers across Alaska received pink slips. As noted by the Journal of Commerce in an article last month, over 700 teachers and support staff have been laid off in Alaska’s five largest school districts alone. Some of our best new educators in Alaska have been fired on the last day of school two or three years in a row. Unsurprisingly, many choose to find work elsewhere.

We are facing a teacher shortage in Alaska. Job fairs that once attracted hundreds of prospective hires this year had more booths than they did job applicants, and many districts began the year with vacancies.

Teachers aren’t moving here, they’re not spending their full careers here, they’re not buying houses here, they’re not retiring here. Just like private sector layoffs, rapid turnover in the public sector is bad for local communities and businesses.

There is also a direct financial cost to teacher turnover. A recent study by the UAA Center for Alaska Education Policy Research conservatively estimated that it costs a school district more than $20,000 to recruit and train a new teacher. That’s over $20 million per year statewide — money that could otherwise be used to keep class sizes at more appropriate levels for student achievement.

But there’s an even bigger impact on our students — something that is far worse for the economy over the long term.

When class sizes spin out of control, students lose. Last year, I taught a class of 35 at Lathrop. Next year, do you think students will get personalized feedback and one-on-one learning in classes of 40 students or more? When classrooms become standing room only, the nuance of customization for each student evaporates and lessons become rote. Will electives like music, art, and even physical education disappear?

I ran into a 2011 Lathrop grad at the airport a few weeks ago. He’s in the Navy and was about to deploy for his third tour of duty — this time to the Middle East. He told me his teachers’ ability to connect with him is what made his high school experience successful. He wondered openly whether students will get that opportunity today.

Our students can’t afford another year of wondering if their favorite teacher will be back next year to teach calculus, or coach basketball, or lead a Business Professionals of America chapter. Next year’s third graders were in kindergarten when Alaska’s fiscal crisis began.

Overcrowded classrooms with no support will not put them on the road to lifelong success. Students don’t get to go back and start school over when the price of oil goes back up.

So, what’s the solution?

Alaska students need a comprehensive fiscal plan that fully funds public education, and they need it now. Oil won’t save Alaska this time.

It’s time for our young state to mature and develop broad-based revenue sources, so we can put our students first. Nobody likes the idea of taxes, but with a $3 billion budget deficit, Alaska can’t cut its way to success. The House Majority and Governor Walker have put forward comprehensive plans that fill the deficit. It’s time for the Senate Majority to put their own revenue plan on the table, before it’s too late.

My former student told me he wants to return to Fairbanks after his deployment. He’s thinking about joining the Alaska State Troopers, and we’d be lucky to have him. His options are good because he received a high quality education.

Let’s make sure the Classes of 2018, 2019, 2020, and beyond get all of those same options.

Tim Parker is the president of NEA-Alaska.

06/15/2017 - 12:27pm