OPINION: Education funding debate brings up issues of rural versus urban funding
April 21st, 2014 | Carey Restino
Word in the halls of Juneau is that the Alaska Legislature might, this year, approve the largest increase in funding for schools in Alaska in years. Menial increases or stagnant budgets have for decades allowed inflation to erode what were once some of the best schools in the nation. Today, programs are trimmed to the fraying point, and most of all in the state's small, rural communities.
Spend some time in Alaska's schools today and you'll see teachers that are working too hard, spending countless hours working beyond their paid hours because of large class sizes and a lack of support staff. You'll see a lot of requests for parent donations — activities and clubs all cost money, and parents are asked to provide a long list of supplies each year, from tissue to snacks. And you'll see less and less time and money devoted to things like music and art — things that are deemed as extras despite countless studies linking the significant brain development that occurs while being creative.
And the cutbacks are not equal. The problem with the way the state funds schools is that it doesn't adequately take into account the difference between providing education in a community where heating fuel is $9 a gallon and every pencil has to be shipped or flown in. As a result, the state's rural schools have to devote more of their budgets to simple operations, and less to the task of educating students. At the same time, administrators and teachers are constantly shifting in and out with few educators staying long. That further strains an already strained system in the places where quality education is dearly needed.
At the same time, one of the issues that was raised by the debate over the increase in the funding formula is the fact that larger school districts receive more funding from the governments they reside in. A handful of districts receive the maximum amount of funding from their boroughs, while districts with less financial resources provide less support.
The bottom line is that students in Alaska's rural communities get a very different education than those in larger districts. They have significantly less class offerings, to the point where some have to complete online classes just to meet the minimum requirements for attending college, such as three years of a foreign language. That's not supposed to happen, but it absolutely does, sometimes to extremes.
This is a problem that needs to be addressed, but it shouldn't be used as an excuse not to increase funding to the state's base rate, a formula that provides a set amount of funding to districts for each student in attendance. While increasing the base rate may cause larger districts to get more of a boost than smaller schools, it provides those running schools with the security they need to make necessary changes, such as hiring more teachers, without the fear that one-time education funding monies outside the base student allocation will be withdrawn.
The current legislature should be commended for recognizing the importance of increasing the education formula. What are the naysayers really trying to accomplish by criticizing in an effort to improve education for all Alaskans? If there is a problem with the inequity created by the state's funding system, that should be fixed separately.
The real story about funding education is that it is an investment, one that pays dividends in all sorts of ways. Educate our youth well and they are more likely to find good jobs, be entrepreneurial, and contribute positively to our state's economy. Scrimp and those expenses may come back to haunt us with higher unemployment rates and dependency on welfare programs. Formal education is not the answer for everyone — certainly there are examples of those who have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps. But for the vast majority of the population, this is their chance to learn the skills they need to succeed in this world.
Investing in education is never wasted, and if increasing the per-student state allocation results in an increase in disparity between rural and urban schools, then that issue needs to be addressed separately. Funding outside the formula creates too much financial uncertainty for educators.
Once the Legislature is done increasing the allocation to a point closer to where it should have been for years, the next step is to look again at the quality of the education found in the state's rural schools and find ways to improve this disparity permanently so all children in Alaska get the education they deserve.