Alaska Still Bottom Feeds in Education Rankings Compared to Other States

What is Alaska getting for its money in public education? We hear from special interests that we can't possibly cut education. The big question is "how do we sustain the current spending for public education and how do we improve public education?".

When it comes to investing money, most people focus on the risks and the overall return on that investment.  Likewise, when one considers a major purchase such as an automobile or major appliance, one evaluates the initial cost and the “return” in the form of functionality that investment provides.  But when it comes to the public education system, the real return on that investment is seldom reviewed.  Instead, the assumption is made that if we throw more money at the problem, then it will surely improve the return on the education investment.  The focus is always on input and not the output.

In Alaska’s case the more money we spend doesn’t correlate at all with any return on our education investment.  And the budget crunch that Alaska faces dictates that we start looking at what we are doing right, stop what we are doing wrong, and look at more cost-effective means of educating our children.  The pressure will be on from all the special interests trying to protect their turf, that is money.  These are the usual special interests, teachers unions, state school board associations, public employee unions, and other associated groups.  Trouble is, they always focus on the money, not what is best for all the kids.  And now money is a problem-the State of Alaska is now in a $4.1 Billion budget deficit hole.

The below chart we have titled Alaska’s K12 Education Return on Investment.  The spending data is from the National Education Association which is adjusted for cost of living in each state.  The spending is on a per capita basis.  In the far right columns we have  posted the most recent scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) tests.  The NAEP column for low income reading consists of those students who are on the free and reduced price lunch program.  The upper/middle income students are those students who are not on the FRPL program.  Finally, we have used 4th grade reading as the metric because the saying goes: “You learn to read by 4th grade so you can read to learn after that”.

cost of living v NAEP bobs chart

As you can see, Alaska spends more per capita on K12 education than any other state-nearly 20% more than the next highest.  And adjusted for the relative cost of living, Alaska spends more per capita than all but one state, Wyoming.  Then we should have outstanding scores on the NAEP tests, shouldn’t we?  Guess again.

For low income 4th graders, Alaska is dead last in reading.  One can deduce that so many of Alaska’s 4th graders are not reading at grade level that they will have a very difficult time throughout their K12 education.  Our upper/middle income 4th graders do a little better-ranking 48th out of the 50 States in 4th grade reading.  So, if the maxim that “you learn to read by 4th grade so you can read to learn after that” is true, Alaskan students are being severely shortchanged.

Now let’s look at Florida.  Florida spends 54% per capita of what Alaska spends, adjusted for cost of living.  Yet Florida stomps Alaska when it comes to NAEP 4th grade reading scores.  Florida’s low income 4th graders are #1 in the nation in reading compared to other low income 4th graders.  And Florida’s upper/middle income 4th graders rank #4 in reading.  What is going on in Florida and not in Alaska?

Change has been happening on a grand scale in Florida public education.  Starting in 1999 Florida has stepped up and addressed the problem of low expectations, little accountability and social promotion in its public education system.  It grades schools on a scale of A – F so parents can determine if their school is performing or not.  It ended social promotion so that third grade students have to read at grade level before they move on to the next grade.  Education funding rewards success, not failure.  And teachers are rewarded for effectiveness in the classroom.  Finally, Florida has many choices for parents to choose from, including opting out of failing schools to go to a private school.  All these policies are working such that Florida has shown the way to improve education in all states.

Florida lays to rest those myths that the public education system continues to push: bad parenting, poverty, drugs, hungry students, too many languages, and all other societal ills.

With Alaska’s fiscal crunch and decreasing revenue, we need to look at smarter ways of educating our children.  As you can see, money is not the problem.  Let’s look to Florida–we do not need to reinvent the wheel.  We need out-of-the-box ideas, innovation and accountability if Alaska is to make better use of its education resources.  This crisis is an opportunity that should be seized upon to change the way Alaska educates its students.

Here’s another article on the growth of ASD staff vs number of students: