Those who claim more state spending on government run schools will lead to better student achievement are hatching a multi-pronged strategy to pressure Alaska lawmakers during the upcoming legislative session.
Many entrenched educational activists are upset that Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s proposed state budget does not include a plan to grow state spending on the Base Student Allocation (BSA), which is the amount of money the state spends on each student enrolled in public education.
Lon Garrison, Executive Director of the influential Alaska Association of School Boards, recently wrote a letter to educators across the state, warning that the upcoming legislative session will be “the most critical and consequential session public school advocates have ever faced.” In particular, he hopes to wage an all-hands-on-deck campaign to overwhelm lawmakers with lobbyists, phone calls, personal visits and positive reinforcement to push them into greenlighting more state funds for education.
Education spending, however, is already the second largest annual budgetary item for the State of Alaska with the Department of Education being allotted $1.67 billion in fiscal year 2023.
In fact, Alaska spends more prodigiously on education than most states. The Heritage Foundation ranked Alaska as the ninth-highest spending state nationwide in the 2018-2019 school year, at $18,615 per pupil after adjusting for Alaska’s cost of living. Nearly $6,000 of that comes from state coffers. The U.S. Census Bureau documents an unadjusted per-pupil spending in Alaska of $18,313 in 2020, which far exceeded the Census Bureau’s U.S. average of $13,494 per pupil. Some rankings place Alaska’s spending as the fourth highest in the country.
The reality is that many families are pulling their kids from failing brick-and-mortar public schools and opting for private education, independent homeschooling or public homeschool programs.
But more spending has not translated into better student outcomes. Despite high educational expenditures, Alaska was second-to-last on the 2022 fourth grade reading National Assessment of Educational Progress. According to the latest statewide standardized assessment, the Alaska System of Academic Readiness (AK STAR), more than 70% of Alaska students are below proficient in reading and math.
Garrison and his group have repeatedly blasted those who note that dismal standardized test scores are objective evidence that Alaska’s public schools are failing to educate children. Earlier this year, he claimed that objective test scores are just sterilized statistics, which don’t take into account the subjective and personal experiences that he and other state educators claim are far more important in factoring educational success.
But the reality is that many families are pulling their kids from failing brick-and-mortar public schools and opting for private education, independent homeschooling or public homeschool programs. This is perhaps one of the driving forces behind educators seeking more per-pupil spending. Total enrollment in government-run schools has been decreasing steadily in recent years, dropping from 133,381 in 2018 to just 131,212 in 2023. With fewer overall students to educate, school districts are receiving less state funding.
Gov. Dunleavy’s proposed budget reflects this reality, and includes a 9% reduction in the Education Department’s budget. He said he wants to place a greater emphasis on how the state spends educational dollars rather than simply dumping more money into the system.
He told the Alaska Beacon that he wants to put more money towards charter schools and homeschool programs, which consistently outperform standard public schools.
But cutting the education budget does not set well with Garrison, teacher unions and other educational activists who have consistently claimed that they just need more money to improve Alaska’s dismal academic outcomes.
In order to ensure the money keeps flowing Garrison said it is the ASAA “mission, together as an association and you individually as school boards and communities,” to “convince the Legislature, the Governor, and the Commissioner” that spending more public money is the key to educational success.
Garrison encourages activists to “collaborate with journalists to feature stories that illustrate the impact of insufficient funding on schools and students.”
To accomplish this goal, AASB has planned an elaborate and multi-pronged strategy that has been in the works since early fall.
Working in tandem with teachers unions, school districts, school boards and activist groups, AASB is building a network that will unleash a unified message in support of increasing the BSA, along with other “additional education funding opportunities.”
AASB has already met many legislators and their staff prior to the start of the session, and Garrison is hoping to enlist local school board members to visit lawmakers in Juneau throughout every week of the upcoming legislative session.
“AASB is holding events, board academies, webinars, and meetings with legislators to help prepare you to advocate effectively,” Garrison noted.
ASAA is also compiling research that supports its claim that increased education spending leads to better student achievement.
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In addition to more per-pupil spending Garrison plans to ask for extra money related to building improvements, new resources and funds to hire new teachers.
To accomplish this task, Garrison wants activists to deliberately “cultivate relationships with legislators and their staff members,” by finding out where they will be and having personal interactions that will hopefully translate into greater influence over lawmakers.
Leveraging local media is another component of the strategy. In addition to writing letters to the editor and publishing press releases, Garrison encourages activists to “collaborate with journalists to feature stories that illustrate the impact of insufficient funding on schools and students.”
“Prepare compelling arguments backed by data and personal anecdotes to sway lawmakers’ opinions,” Garrison advised. “Stay persistent and maintain consistent pressure on legislators. Follow up regularly, provide updates, and adapt your strategies based on the evolving political landscape.”
Whenever lawmakers agree to advance their agenda, Garrison advises publicly praising them with letters of appreciation and community events to “reinforce positive behavior.”