Alaska Should Follow Florida’s Lead in Education

We all want the best education system in the U.S., no doubt. The question is how do we improve Alaska's public education system? Is it more money? Technology? Charter schools? We need to see what is working in other states, especially Florida.

It has been claimed by many that the State of Alaska is not funding public education adequately and some are trying to destroy the system.  These claims are just that–claims.  They are not backed up by data and thus are anecdotal and opinions.  Some of these claims are downright misinformation.

So, let’s look at the facts. Let’s look at how much the State of Alaska alone funds our public schools and then decide if we pay enough.  Very few Alaskans know that we spend more per capita on our schools than 49 other states.  Adjusted for the cost of living, we spend $2,591 per every person in the state according to the NEA (1).  Matter of fact, in a statewide poll conducted by Braun Research Inc in 2011 it was found that only 7 percent of Alaskans could estimate the spending range.  Even more surprising, nearly a quarter of those surveyed thought the state spent less than 25 percent of actual costs(2).

One part of state funding public schools is known as the foundation formula which includes the Base Student Allocation.  For the past 10 years this foundation formula has increased by 42 percent while inflation has only increased by 22 percent.  So with nearly 2,700 fewer students enrolled in Alaska’s public schools, funding has actually increased 360 million dollars since 2006(3). Contrary to those who shout “more funding for our public schools”, the legislature has been extremely generous with its funding.

Even if we do spend an extravagant amount on public education, are we getting a good return on our investment?  Frankly, no.  Compared to the other 50 states, Alaska ranks dead last in low income fourth grade reading on the national NAEP tests.  It’s not much better for our upper/middle income fourth grade students who rank 48th in fourth grade reading.  How can we spend tons of money and get such little return(4)?

We get such little return on our education investment because most special interests and some legislators always focus on the input and not the output.  Let’s start focusing on student outcomes and not funding.  We need to hold school districts, superintendents, and schools accountable for results, good or bad.  And let’s reward those good results and those who are making a big difference in student achievement.  Look at what Florida did while spending only half of what Alaska spends per capita.  Florida’s low income fourth graders rank first in NAEP reading compared to other states’ low income fourth graders.  And its upper/middle income fourth graders rank fourth in reading in the nation(5). Aren’t our fourth graders just as smart?  What is Florida doing that Alaska isn’t?

I believe Florida does education right.  It requires accountability from all within the public education system.  It grades schools on an A-F scale so parents know if their school is performing.  Is it really bad if a parent sees an “F” on the school’s door or marquee?  Why keep parents in the dark?  There is no social promotion-a third grader must read at grade level before being promoted.  Florida rewards successful schools with more funding, incentivizing more success.  Finally, and most importantly, Florida pays teachers more for being effective in the classroom.  All these are common sense to most of us.  So why doesn’t Alaska do this?

Why isn’t Alaska more like Florida in its common sense approach?  Alaska doesn’t implement these creative ideas and accountability solutions because the powerful interests that control public education don’t want to admit to the root causes of an under performing system.  They would rather blame parents, kids and social ills than fix the problem.  Besides, what would these powerful interests gain from admitting there even is a problem.

It’s refreshing to see legislators look at the underlying problem and realize that the past ten years of increased funding has not improved education.  As the State looks at a more than four billion dollar shortfall in revenue, a four percent cut in education funding is not substantial.  I thank the legislators for not cutting education even more.

Funding of public schools is not the problem.  And it is not the solution, especially in these tough fiscal times.  We need to demand accountability from the education system.  Alaskans need to insist on accountability from the leaders of our public schools.  We cannot accept less than that.  Meanwhile, pay little heed to those who shout loudly “fund our public schools adequately”.  We already are.  The shout should be “hold our public schools accountable and make them improve”.  We owe this to all Alaskan children.

Why can’t Alaska do what Florida is doing:

  • Grade schools on an A to F basis for parents to know how their child’s school is doing
  • No social promotion–a 3rd grader must read at grade level before being promoted
  • Reward successful schools with more funding–incentivize success
  • Pay effective teachers more
  • Hold school boards, superintendents, teachers and state education officials accountable for results

WHY CAN’T WE? WE OWE IT TO ALASKAN CHILDREN!

1 National Education Association, The Council for Community and Economic Research, Us Dept of Education
2 http://www.edchoice.org/Research/Reports/Alaska-K-12—School-Choice-Survey.aspx
3 http://education.alaska.gov/stats/
4 http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/states/
5 http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/states/