Parnell’s War on Education
Our governor gave his State of the Colony speech this week. In it, he tied “school reform” (by which he apparently means amending the Alaska Constitution to allow spending public money on private and religious schools) to raising the state’s contribution to each student’s education.
I guess taking hostages is now Standard Operating Procedure for Republican elected officials. And even if those of us who like our constitution just the way it is were to acquiesce, Gov. Sean Parnell’s proposed “increase” in education funding wouldn’t come close to replacing what schools have lost to inflation in just the last three years.
Almost as soon as Alaskans started to howl about his blackmail attempt, Parnell threw that baby in reverse and backed away. “Oh, noooo, I’d never say what I just said before I found out I wasn’t king! Sheesh! What do you take me for? Hurumpf. Wait, was that on tape?”
The American Legislative Exchange Council, the group that artfully married lobbyists, big corporations and conservative legislators from across the nation, has pushed privatization of schools across the country. It’s still their agenda, though it has been a disaster for teachers, students and the public.
For example, in Milwaukee, the base student allocation is $6,442 a year. (In Alaska, it’s less than $5,700.) Under their “Milwaukee Parental Choice Program,” a private school called LifeSkills Academy took more than $2 million from the Department of Public Instruction before moving out of its rented space in the night and disappearing.
The LifeSkills students then had to squeeze into other schools that didn’t get the money that should have come with them — straining teachers, classrooms and diverting precious resources from other students.
And the LifeSkills kids needed all the help they could get. According to the local paper, “No students attending LifeSkills were proficient in reading or math in 2012-’13, except for a single fourth-grade student, according to the most recent state achievement results.”
When was the last time you heard about a public school taking the state’s money and skipping out for a beach in Mexico.
LifeSkills Academy? Is that a solution to the problems of educating Alaska children?
I haven’t taken an oath to defend the Constitution of the state of Alaska, but I know a guy who helped write it, and English is my first language.
Here’s what it says about education:
“The legislature shall by general law establish and maintain a system of public schools open to all children of the State, and may provide for other public educational institutions. Schools and institutions so established shall be free from sectarian control.
“No money shall be paid from public funds for the direct benefit of any religious or other private educational institution.”
“Free from sectarian control” seems pretty clear to me. Alaska’s founders weren’t inventing the wheel, they were expanding the Territorial Organic Act of 1912, which required the separation of church and state schools.
Exactly how much will Parnell’s “privatizing” of Alaska schools cost? Sen. Berta Gardner produced a nonpartisan legislative study that showed it would run about $100 million a year to add a for-profit system. That seems like real money when you see 159 teachers lose their jobs to offset part of a $23 million budget shortfall in Anchorage.
Our public education system can, of course, use improvement. But at this week’s Anchorage School Board meeting some wonderful achievements were recognized. Graduation rates are up significantly, juvenile crime rates in Anchorage are down significantly, and more children are participating in vocational education programs.
For the past few years, the Legislature and governor have demanded “improvements” before increasing school funding. In fact, Parnell famously called education “the ultimate giveaway.” That’s either ironic or psychotic.
That attitude is the polar opposite of the one he took with the oil companies. He didn’t even require them to make commitments to produce more oil before he gave them tax breaks, much less make them produce more first. But that wasn’t a “giveaway.”
But schools? With them he’s Mr. Tough Guy: “You’ll get no more money until I see ‘improvement’ and ‘reform’! ”
Part of the success we’ve seen in our schools in recent years is attributable to programs that were cut just last spring because of lack of money. Graduation coaches and regular counselors, security personnel and career guides are no longer there to help students who need help to make it. Nothing says, “Good job! Way to go!” like a pink slip.
I agree with radio storyteller Garrison Keillor: “When you wage war on the public schools, you’re attacking the mortar that holds the community together. You’re not a conservative, you’re a vandal.”