The War on Alaska’s Public Schools — The Basic Outline
by Linda Kellen Biegel
Last school year, I wrote a post about the proposed cuts in the Anchorage School District budget and how they would affect a family of a middle school student. It was then I became aware of the outrageous fees Mayor Dan Sullivan was charging the school district–for example: 100% of the salaries and benefits of those Anchorage Police–called Resource Officers–who only service the School District about 70% of the time. I tried to show how they were taking millions of dollars away from our kids. (Note: As of this week, these fees have not changed.)
Sadly, this week Jeanne wrote a post about this year’s cuts. They are much worse than last year and are precipitated by both Governor Parnell’s under-funding as well as Mayor Sullivan’s refusal to tax to the cap.
But it’s not just Anchorage that is suffering. Fairbanks, Juneau and many smaller and more rural schools are in deep trouble if things don’t change. The worst part: this is all orchestrated as part of a larger and more national attack on public education. Alaska is just next-in-line.
For over a year now, I’ve watched how the anti-public school drama has played out in Alaska on multiple fronts. From the Municipality of Anchorage to the Legislature to the Governor’s Office to outside organizations, the forces at work are performing a complex dance in multiple venues…a dance that is impossible to follow unless one is a complete research nerd (and then, only tenuously). I’ve wanted to write about it all in that context…I’ve started a number of posts. However, I haven’t been able to figure out how to present it. I started writing a list, like an outline…
…and realized that was the best way to start.
So here is a list of the characters in this drama and the means they are using to achieve their agenda — a summary of their activities so far. Jeanne and I will be writing multiple posts in the future on these education issues. This gives you a place to look up the various characters and refresh your memory about their place in the story.
Disclaimer: I want to emphasize that while the characters supporting these false “reforms” in Alaska seem to be Republican, the issue is not a partisan one. From what I can see, the majority of Alaska’s Republican Legislators are not yet “sold” on this bill of goods and are more than happy to receive input from their constituents.
The problem: Like every other Alaska issue, these strategies are generally pushed forward by those religious ideologues and/or those beholden to businesses/corporations who want privatization across-the-board. These businesses/corporations who are pushing this “education reform” agenda can do so with tons of money and the help of friendly politicians. We must contact our State Senators and Representatives to counter any misinformation. I hope this and future posts help you to do that.
Leading the attack:
— Governor Sean Parnell — I covered some of the issues with the Governor at the beginning and discuss his budget below. Since the election, Governor Parnell has truly shown his religious extremist leanings and tea party philosophy, which includes a strong “Christian” influence in the interpretation of law. An alarming number of his appointees also seem to reflect his beliefs.
— Representative Wes Keller — Originally appointed by Sarah Palin to fill a vacancy in the Legislature, Mr. Keller is a religious extremist and tea partier through-and-through. He is a state chairman for the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) Mr. Keller is the sponsor/creator of House Bill 145 and House Joint Resolution 16 (see below) with some help from ALEC’s “model bills.”
— Senator Fred Dyson — He wasn’t appointed by Palin but “ditto” to everything else. Dyson is sponsor of the companion legislation in the Senate, SB 106 and he attended the ALEC Conference with Keller last year.
— ALEC — A slightly re-worded summary from Pro Publica — I encourage you to follow the link and read the entire post: “For decades, a discreet nonprofit called the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC has brought together state legislators and corporate representatives to produce business-friendly “model” legislation. These “model” bills form the basis of hundreds of pieces of legislation each year, and they often end up as laws.”
— The Friedman Foundation — Per the Nation: “For most of the half-century since economist Milton Friedman first advanced the idea of school vouchers, it’s been the ultimate weapon in our educational debates, always ticking just under the surface, never quite going off. But after last November’s Republican statehouse victories, the right, sometimes abetted by Democrats and liberals, has brought back vouchers and school privatization with a vengeance.”
The Foundation has been heavily involved in most of those voucher battles across the country. As I will discuss below, they have turned their sites on Alaska by conducting a poll of residents regarding school vouchers.
— Mayor Dan Sullivan — I have recapped some of the Mayor’s anti-education moves at the beginning of this post and Mudflats as a whole has covered many more. His “Education Summit” is ongoing and I discuss it below.
— Jim Minnery–Minnery’s Alaska Family Council lists “School Choice” as one of their top issues. Minnery has been a proponent of changing the AK Constitution in order to use State money for religious education since back in 2008, as this email between Gov. Sarah Palin and then Atty General Talis Coleberg shows.
— The Catholic Archdiocese of Anchorage It’s not hard to guess the motivation behind the Archdiocese’s push for school vouchers, as reflected in the “Catholic Anchor.” A story in the Chicago Tribune on what the results of Indiana’s voucher program revealed: “…Just as backers had hoped and opponents feared, a new statewide school voucher program in Indiana is draining money from public education and offering new life to struggling parochial schools.” My understanding is that the economy has taken a serious toll on the enrollment in parochial (as well as private) schools in the state. Last year, one of them had a Senior graduating class of three. These schools may be counting on our State money to keep them afloat.
— KIPP Charter Schools — I included KIPP on this list even though their only actual appearance in the state was in the form of Dr. Mike Feinberg, who taught 5th grade for three whole years with Teach For America and then founded the “Knowledge Is Power Program” (KIPP) Charter Schools. The reason I list them is because the presentation by Feinberg at the Education Summit (third video, first speaker after Superintendent Comeau) sounded like he was trying to sell a Veg-O-Matic or a set of Ginsu knives rather than inform a group about education alternatives. And it makes sense…Alaska is a rich oil state with a surplus when most other states have deficits. You could almost see the man drooling.
— Governor Parnell’s Operating Budget (HB 284 — starting on page 8) — The Governor promised that his budget was a “full funding of K-12 Education”. In actuality, the budget doesn’t even cover inflation (which averaged 3.16% in 2011) and now has school districts across the state scrambling to cut much-needed programs. How much of a slap-in-the face was it to K-12 Education in Alaska? The “Teaching and Learning” line-item in the Department of Education budget makes up the bulk of the money shared by every school district in Alaska. If the budget stays as-is, Alaska schools will receive a little over $237 million this year…an increase of about $3 million from last year or about 1.3%. However, the Office of the Governor “Executive Office” line-item (which includes the Governor’s Staff) will be receiving over $13 million this year — an increase of almost $2 million or over 13%!
— House Joint Resolution (HJR) 16 — A resolution which, if passed, would place an amendment to the Constitution on the ballot, allowing for public (education) money to go for a “public purpose.” According to the text of the resolution, it still specifically does NOT allow state money to go towards private or religious institutions. However, it DOES seem geared to allow state funds for privatized education. Also, I have been told of one more possibility (which will require more research)…it could leave open the option of a for-profit business that owns a religious school receiving funds. From Wes Keller’s Sponsor Statement:
HJR 16 opens some of these doors for both public and private education by allowing the release of funds to more than just public schools. This Constitutional Amendment allows those students seeking to excel in secondary and post secondary education to attend a school that meets their needs.
Like I said…more research…
— House Bill (HB) 145 (Senate companion bill SB 106) — Titled the same as the ALEC template voucher bill, HB145 is intended to establish: “…the parental choice scholarship program to be administered by school districts for the purpose of paying the cost of attending grades kindergarten through 12 at public and private schools…” In other words, it will establish school vouchers with State of Alaska money.
At this time, it suffers from some major drawbacks:
1) It’s unconstitutional per Article 7 Section 1 a) State money cannot be used to fund private or religious education (see HJR 16) and b) We must “establish and maintain a system of public schools open to all children of the State,” — since many village parents will be unable to utilize this “choice” (voucher), it could quite possibly get decimated in the courts.
2) Because there have been amendments on top of amendments in an attempt to get it to work, it is a huge pile of gobbledy gook that most of the members of the House Education Committee don’t even completely understand, based on their Friday meeting. Those pushing the bill (Rep Keller, Rep Dick) seem to think it’s been in the Education Committee “an embarassing” amount of time and just needs to get moved along…whether it functions or not.
**There is another meeting scheduled for Wednesday Feb 1st and I intend to send my testimony to the Committee beforehand. I encourage you to do the same.**
— “Alaska K-12 School Choice Survey” — Several months ago, I was listening to a conservative show when the host started discussing a poll that proves Alaska wants to have vouchers private charter schools. It turned out to be a poll that was funded by the Friedman Foundation. The host was quoting numbers over 60% in favor of various types of alternative education…pretty impressive. When I researched the poll, I discovered the most important question:
How familiar are you with [Charter Schools/Virtual Schools/School Vouchers] in K-12 education? Not that familiar/Never heard of it — 62%
So basically, the vast majority polled had no idea what these folks were talking about. So, when these Alaskans who were quite used to receiving free money in the form of a Permanent Fund Dividend Check each year were asked a question worded like this:
“An education savings account allows parents to withdraw their child from a public district or charter school and recieve a payment into a government authorized savings account with restricted but multiple uses. Parents can then used these funds to pay for private school tuition, virtual education programs, private tutoring or saving for future college expenses. In general, do you favor or opppose this kind of savings account system?”
61% were all for it!
Note that 61% is about the same percentage of folks who had no idea what “school choice” really is. In other words, the same percentage of folks who know what all of this means said “no” to the free money.
Another note: if you look at the survey demographics, only 13% were Alaska Native. That does not match the State of Alaska demographics according to the 2010 Census, but it does match the Municipality of Anchorage demographics. In other words, while these folks were claiming that their “sample size” was Alaska, it was probably just Anchorage.
Why is that significant?
Anchorage School District already has really nice charter schools within the system (and there is no reason we can’t have more). If you ask someone from Anchorage about charter schools, especially if they don’t know about the lower-48 kind, that will completely skew their responses.
— The Education Summit — Per Municipal Code, Mayor Dan Sullivan’s roll in enacting School District changes is generally signing or vetoing what’s been passed through the School Board and the Anchorage Assembly. However, being that it’s an election year, he adopted the role of Superintendent by collecting corporate and private business money for an Education Summit. It was set up in three parts:
1) He hired Viewpoint Learning, a company of professional “handlers,” then hand-picked a mostly-conservative 100 participants. They brought up seven panelists. All but two of them were clearly pushing a privatized charter school and/or voucher agenda, four of them worked for organizations whose funding was provided directly by privatization advocates and only one had proof of an education plan with long-term success…a non-privatization pro-union strategy in Finland.
2) Now in phase 2, The Mayor’s Office is currently asking for Anchorage residents to attend the “community conversations.” This is the only time that the general public will have any input n the “scenarios” reached during the Education Summit. I’ve already signed up for one and I encourage everyone to do the same.
3) There will be a “Capstone Summit” in June where some of the Summit participants and some of the Community Dialogue participants will get together and finalize “recommendations.”
To be continued…