Point of View: Alaskans families want and deserve education reform

If you read the mainstream papers and blogs and spend just a little bit of time on social media these days, you will see, read, and be told that the education sky is falling. The people promoting this narrative might be right, but not just because of funding. Education in Alaska needs reform.

I’ve been very transparent in my conversations with the Legislature, school district administrators, the education lobby establishment, and the public. My message – yes, there needs to be additional funding for education, but we also need some changes to how we do education in Alaska.

The easy and less controversial approach would be to increase funding without asking questions about results or require local school districts to be more transparent with their budgets. I could also ignore the growing demand that parents and student have for more public-school choice and just spend more money. It’s what we have been doing for decades without improved results. Continuing that would be fiscally irresponsible.

That approach is what the education special interests want (the same group that lobbied against increased pay for classroom teachers) but it’s not what Alaskan families want. I made a promise to Alaskans when I was elected and reminded everyone in my State of the State speech this year, that I would not be a governor for special interests. I said to the special interest groups, “Don’t be disappointed if you knock on my door asking me to kill an opportunity. If so, you are knocking on the wrong door.” I meant it when I said it in January, and I still mean it today.

Average, everyday Alaskans don’t walk the halls in Juneau, they can’t afford to pay lobbyists, and their busy lives make it difficult for them to testify in Legislative committee meetings. But I know from the people I talk to, the phone calls I get, and polling results, that Alaskans are not satisfied with the status quo.

Alaskans support an increase in school funding, as do I, but they want and expect more. They want more public-school choice, they want teachers to be well compensated and supported, and they want to know that their children are learning and will be prepared for success as adults.

They also know that they can chose the best educational models for their children, and we are seeing them do just that, with a greater number of them choosing to remove their children from neighborhood schools. The reality is that if we don’t make it easier for parents and students to access a variety of public-school choices, like charter schools, parents will vote with their feet and leave the public school system entirely.

A recent Harvard study found that Alaska’s public charter schools are number one in the nation. That’s right! You heard it. According to the research, Alaska has the best charter schools in the country. What makes this news even better, is that our historically underperforming students do exponentially better in our charter schools. Nationally, we also see a push in many states including New York to increase the number of charter school and alternative public-school opportunities for at-risk and underserved students. Alaska is leading the way, so why wouldn’t we want to encourage more of what we do best?

As the conversation around education continues, I will work with every member of the legislature to pass an increase in funding and needed reforms. We must do a better job supporting the teachers who work with our most valuable resources every day. We must make it easier for students and parents to access alternative public-school choices, like charter schools. And we must ensure that resources are specifically directed at classroom instruction that improves outcomes and increases reading proficiency. It’s what Alaskan families want, and they deserve it.

Rest assured; public schools will be adequately funded. However, the real question is will we allow a handful of special interests to shortchange our teachers, parents, and students or will the special interests get out of the way so that we can create a public school system that benefits everyone?

Mike Dunleavy is the 12th governor of Alaska.