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OPINION: Distraction of charter school debate will not serve Alaska students

February 9th, 2017 | Carey Restino Print this article   Email this article  

Across most of Alaska, there are no choices about where you will send your child. There is one school, for better or worse, and that is the only option, unless you want to send your student out of town for their education.

So Tuesday's news that the newly appointed leader of the nation's education system never went to a public school, didn't send her children to a public school, and supports a shift to federally funding private and charter schools represents little for the average Alaska student.

What it mostly represents, however, is a distraction, and Alaska's schools don't need any distractions. Our current education system is failing large portions of Alaska students — we have one of the lowest four-year graduation rates in the United States, and that's the state as a whole. While that rate has climbed in recent years to over 75 percent, there are still thousands of Alaska students who drop out before getting a high school diploma.

Recent statistics on graduation rates in rural Alaska have looked more promising, rising into the 70-percent range, though some rural district still see a whopping half of its students drop out before graduating. One concern, however, is that part of the reason for the rising graduation rate is that students are graduating without really learning the material.

One study shows some 60 percent of students entering the University of Alaska system last year from 37 Alaska high schools needed what are now called "zero-level classes" to get up to a level in English and math where they could take entry-level college classes. The University statistics show overall, 44 percent need the developmental classes. Many of those students came to the university with strong grade-point averages, the study noted.

Alaska — especially rural Alaska — is unique in that many schools didn't even exist a generation ago, and then, the relationship between the schools and the communities hasn't been exactly rosy. Today, educators may have a deeper respect for the culture in the communities they serve, but high teacher turnover continues to erode education programs and limit continuity for students.

Districts that have focused on attendance and worked with students to understand why they are choosing to drop out have found that the quality of the education has a lot to do with students' choices. Those districts have seen huge improvements in graduation rates, a testament to the fact that quality and attention does matter to students, and the challenge of providing education in rural Alaska is not insurmountable.

But with Alaska's current fiscal situation, Alaska's education system is almost certainly going to be further strained in coming years, and a shift in federal focus (and dollars) isn't going to help any. Betsy DeVos' confirmation on Tuesday is concerning to Alaskans, as was seen by the outpouring of opposition that influenced Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski's vote against the president's selected candidate.

DeVos was selected in part to follow through with campaign promises to allow federal education dollars to be used for vouchers — essentially allowing parents to take the money that would have gone to public schools and use it instead to pay for private education. The implications for the public school system, which is really the only option for most Alaskans, are concerning, especially during a time when Alaska needs more support, not less, from the federal government.

But perhaps more concerning is the impact this potential shift in the direction of our nation's education system will have on our focus on providing good education across the state and overcoming the challenges we currently face. Alaska has seen the unintended consequences federal education mandates have had here before. The realities of our geography and small population make us the square peg. No Child Left Behind's standardized testing and the repercussions it caused in Alaska are a perfect example. For years, districts had to struggle to explain themselves to federal education officials while facing the potential of having to fire most of their administrators and teachers. In areas that struggle to keep teachers, those measures were extremely counterproductive.

Sen. Dan Sullivan, who voted in favor of DeVos, said he received a number of "commitments" from DeVos that education decisions are best left in the state's hands. But if that means that federal support for public education will be diluted, it will be a tragedy to Alaska's future.

Education holds the key for Alaska's future. The next generation of Alaskans will need all the education they can get to solve the riddle of our state's future path, to be resourceful, creative and innovative in building the diversity of our economy and overcoming the impacts of climate change. While the fight to prevent DeVos' confirmation is over, Alaskans must continue to watch federal education policy closely to ensure that our schools do not suffer at the hand of those blind to the unique needs of this state.


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