Public schools must come first
Just as Alaska’s constitution is the foundation of our state, our public schools are the foundation of tomorrow’s economy and Alaskans’ success.
Alaska’s constitutional convention delegates recognized this when they explicitly wrote into the constitution these words, “The Legislature shall … establish and maintain a system of public schools open to all children of the state.” The delegates’ commitment to public education was so strong, they went on to write, “No money shall be paid from public funds for the direct benefit of any religious or other private educational institution.”
When I took my oath of office, I swore to defend the constitution, and that means supporting our public schools. It also means not advancing any proposed changes to the constitution to a vote without a thorough and public discussion of the reasons for the change and its potential implications.
Alaskans understand we cannot amend our state constitution lightly. Not quite four months ago, Alaskans overwhelming voted against a convention to amend the constitution. Yet today, some legislators are pushing a resolution to remove our constitution’s protections for public schools. Senate leadership decided the time to discuss the proposed amendment’s impacts on schools is after the public votes on the constitutional change.
That “vote first, ask questions later” philosophy is contrary to our oath of office, and contrary to the public interest. Alaskans deserve a full and open conversation about the risks associated with allowing public school resources to go to private schools before being asked to vote on significant changes to the constitution.
At a time when our public schools are laying off teachers and struggling to keep improving with limited resources, allowing taxpayer dollars to go to private schools puts our public schools, students and future at risk. For each student that leaves a public school, that school loses state funding, yet the heating bills and other expenses stay the same. Those public dollars, and likely more, would go to private schools which lack both financial and academic accountability to the public and have shown in states that have gone this route to be no more effective in advancing student performance than public schools.
Our focus must be on making a commitment to our public schools so they can succeed, not on how to take more resources away from them.
Alaska’s public schools have a monumental task at hand, providing a quality education for our students. While many still have a long way to go to get where we need them to be, they are improving. We’ve seen progress in reading levels and graduation rates, and that’s despite the fact that schools haven’t been able to count on having the resources they need to build on their successes. Imagine what our schools could do if they knew they could continue successful initiatives and retain quality staff from one year to the next.
Lately, the governor and legislature have been reluctant to give Alaska’s public schools the resources they need. If we want to ensure a strong education for Alaska’s children and a vibrant future for our state, the conversation about education should focus on how to better support our public schools for the benefit of all Alaskans, not on ways to use public dollars to help the few who are, as constitutional delegate Jack Coghill stated, “segregating themselves from the public” by choosing to send their children to private school.
To succeed, Alaska’s schools need a commitment from the state, and they need it early in the legislative session this year and in a way they can count on it for years to come. Without it, they are forced to focus on where to cut, not where to improve. But with it, the sky is the limit for student achievement.
Alaska is blessed with a can-do spirit, quality teacher training programs to train Alaskans to teach Alaskans and capable students who can make the most of the opportunities provided them. The conversation in Juneau needs to focus on how to help our public schools create those opportunities, and it needs to start now.
Harriet Drummond represents House District 16 (Spenard/Midtown) in the Alaska Legislature. She served three terms on the Anchorage School Board and five years on the Anchorage Municipal Assembly.