Teachers and classrooms first

In his opinion piece Feb. 3 in the Anchorage Daily News, House District 22 Rep. Jason Grenn calls for ending the annual “Pink-Slip circus.”

Many agree with him that this is bad local political theater, and that indeed pink-slipping of teachers must end.

However, bills offered by Rep. Grenn and Kodiak Sen. Gary Stevens make the assumption that pink-slipping—-a politically valuable annual hostage-taking event–will end due to these early education funding bills.

In this respect, Rep. Grenn shows his political naiveté of our state’s control over local school systems.

House Bill 287 and Senate Bill 131 do indeed include a priority funding–by throwing funds wholesale into the entire system of education, not designated to teachers, nor classrooms, nor even schools. These bills simply dump public money into the bloated system with a circus wagon.

These bills do not force districts to end poor choices in the local control of local budget priorities, or practices. Alaska’s 53 local boards will of course still prioritize central administration officials–who are constantly whispering in their ears–not teachers. The big spenders will just get their annual education windfall earlier.

This process always begins in rings under the Big Top: On Monday, Feb. 5, the Anchorage School District’s preliminary budget will be introduced with the crack of a whip. You may expect ASD to propose cutting teachers again this year–not the mere 11 “last hired first fired” individuals required, who should be prepared for this inevitability given declining state funding. Instead, expect the ASD ringmasters to call for double digits of pink slips, for up to 60 teachers.

Here is the strategy: Pink Slips will be issued, because the legislature has not addressed the root problem of funding expectations, which is lack of control by the state over local school budget priorities. This will result in a call to save teachers, which are an ever smaller portion of the budget.

HB287 and SB131 both fail to address this flaw.

If it is the Legislature’s wish to fund classrooms first, that message is clearly not being heard at the local level. Teachers are simply human shields.

I can prove it: If the Legislature truly wanted to end this game, it would not have dropped last session the statute requiring 75 percent of school funds be specifically in instruction.

Instead, the Legislature gave the State Board of Education authority to waver any district in the state that applied, thus dooming any accountability to the Legislature. Given our current low academic standing among all states we might quickly get to see exactly what less than 75 percent of education funding to the classroom does for preparing future Alaskans for higher education or meaningful careers.

Alaska could go lower, you know. The priority now seems to be graduating as many students as possible regardless of the value of their diplomas.

Alaska’s education industry is 100 percent behind early funding of the block grant to local districts, and authors of these bills are carrying the water for those special interests. Seeking early access to their annual state windfall–as they have sought for decades–are: The Association of Alaska School Boards, Alaska Association of School Administrators, Alaska Association of Business Managers, and NEA-Alaska.

They are all in cahoots. All of these organizations are funded from the block grant directly or with membership fees.

Local school districts can indeed build their budgets early; however, do not count on them to prioritize the classroom and the teacher. Fifty years of history have shown the local control battle for independent school districts is dependent upon a bloated, unaccountable state bureaucracy to wet-nurse it.

Hopefully wiser and more experienced legislative heads will realize the only way to end the pink-slip circus is to apply Alaska’s golden rule of state budget management: “He who has the gold, makes the rule.”

Otherwise, expect the same old circus–complete with cries of poverty–if these bills pass. Language to require all district budgets to fully fund teachers and classrooms first is required.

If that doesn’t happen remember what P.T. Barnum is reported to have said: “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

David Nees, Senior Research Associate, Alaska Policy Forum