COMMENTARY: Legislature must protect Alaska's most valuable resource
On the door of a kindergarten classroom in Juneau, I saw a sign that read “Graduating Class of 2025.” What will 2025 be like? I don’t know. But as a school board member, I consider it a sacred public trust to prepare our kids for it.
Much has been written about the investment required to attract development of our natural resources. But very little has been written about the investment required to develop our most important natural resource — Alaska’s young people.
My message is simple: Alaska’s schools are facing unprecedented challenges and we’re calling upon the Alaska Legislature and local government officials to partner with us in ensuring Alaska’s kids are prepared for the future.
Without too much detail, here’s a list of some of the challenges we face:
1. World Class Standards: Our districts are gearing up for the new Alaska and Common Core Standards. Our existing textbooks are not based on these standards. Our instruction will have to change. Both will require investment.
2. New Assessments: In about two years, our students will be asked to take assessments pegged to the Common Core, requiring deeper thought and technical analysis. (They say, “If you can Google it, it won’t be on the assessment.”) In Tennessee, when they shifted from state tests to a Common Core assessment, their proficiency rate in math went from 90 percent to 38 percent! We need to prepare our youngsters.
3. New Teacher Evaluation System: Changing to a system of teacher evaluation that includes student performance (as it should) is another big shift, requiring professional development and new tools.
4. Star Ratings for Schools: Department of Education and Early Development is circulating regulations for a new star rating system to replace the old Adequate Yearly Progress measures.
5. Graduation Rates: All districts are working to raise graduation rates to 90 percent or above, as the Governor challenged. The rates are going up, but there’s more to do.
Alaska’s schools are ready to step up to these challenges. To do so, we’re asking our partners for a reasonable, modest increase in funding, as we have been flat-funded in recent years.
Education is the only state responsibility mandated in the Constitution. The Framers knew the importance of developing our human capital, along with our other natural resources.
Yet, across our state, school boards are struggling over which essentials to cut: postpone the new math curriculum (needed to meet the standards) or eliminate technology (the “Tools of the Future”) or reduce custodians (needed to maintain facilities) or raise class sizes (needed to improve student achievement).
We can’t cut our way to excellence. Smart states don’t treat education as just another line item, asking schools, year after year, to absorb rising fixed costs.
The long-term impact of changing oil taxes is no more important than the long-term impact of preparing our young people.
2025 is not that far away. The challenges are great. Alaska can afford a modest increase to enable school districts to change and rise to the challenge.
Remember, Alaska’s real future is not buried in the ground. It’s the 129,000 students sitting in our classrooms.
Sue Hull is president of the Association of Alaska School Boards and a member of the Fairbanks School Board.