Educators, students testify before lawmakers
JUNEAU – Vern Carlson was 15 minutes early for his appointment with Rep. Doug Isaacson, a North Pole Republican.
“Fifteen minutes early is on time,” said Carlson, as he sat waiting on an upholstered leather bench outside Isaacson’s office.
Carlson is from Cantwell, and the vice president of the Denali Borough School District. He came to Juneau as part of the Association of Alaska School Boards’ Legislative Fly-in, an annual event that draws school board members and superintendents to Juneau en masse to lobby on education issues. Students also come to testify and learn from the proceedings.
Carlson, like many of his counterparts, is hoping to change the perception that schools are failing to provide a quality education.
Carlson told Isaacson that high school graduation rates are above 90 percent in his district. He also bragged on the Cantwell School.
“I’m very proud that it is the top performing small school in the state of Alaska,” Carlson said.
Isaacson congratulated him, and they went on to talk about the symbiotic relationship in a community between jobs and education.
For many taking part in the Fly-in, this was the first time they had observed the legislative process. They packed the early morning committee meetings in both the House and Senate education committees.
On the House side, there was a robust debate over Rep. Tammy Wilson’s education funding bill, which would make the state pick up the entire tab for school funding for all students, no matter where they live. Wilson said her bill points out the lack of fairness in school funding. While boroughs must now contribute property taxes towards education, many rural districts are off the hook because they have little economic development and no property tax base to draw from.
On the Senate side, where the education committee was looking at scrapping the high school exit exam, a Dillingham student told lawmakers the high school exit exam was a waste if time because it’s too easy.
In the afternoon, Legislative Fly-in participants had a chance to talk to a panel of lawmakers directly about education.
Every chair in the hearing room was filled. Students sat on the floor. Others spilled out into the hallway.
For many school board members this was clearly a new experience. One elderly lady sitting on a bench asked another what the word “omnibus” means, not knowing that it refers to a collection of bills, as in the governor’s package of education reform measures.
Some — like Vern Carlson — said they much preferred their one-on-one meetings with lawmakers. But Carlson was also working up the courage to testify at the Legislative Fly-in hearing, something he had never done before.
Carlson spoke out against what he calls the “mentality of cutting.”
“When we spend so much time cutting, we’re not increasing revenue,” said Carlson, who believes it might be time for an income tax.
Carlson wasn’t the only one to lobby the Legislature for more education money.
“I’m so glad we have students (sitting) behind me,” said Sunni Hilts, president of the Association of Alaska School Boards. “I have noticed that some educational groups forget we are talking about children. And when we’re talking about their future, we’re talking about the future of the state of Alaska.”
Hilts called the governor’s bill promising, but also believes he set the bar too low because his plan only includes a slight increase in the education funding formula.
“I think we need to have a very big dream in this state. We are starting to inch our way into mediocrity,” Hilts said.
No one directly talked about Senate Joint Resolution 9, a measure to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot that would allow the state to spend money on students attending private or religious schools.
The measure is known as the “voucher” or “school choice” amendment.
Andi Story, a Juneau school board member, told lawmakers she worries about how the failure of the state to keep up with the needs of public schools affects choice.
“We’ve been talking about choice,” Story said. “And I think we have to remember that 90 percent of our kids are in our public schools, and we don’t want to lose choices for our kids.”
Others talked about the tough choices that had to be made in their school districts, especially money that had to be found to pay for new state mandates.
The time ran out before everyone who signed up had a chance to speak. And although Carlson had that opportunity, he left the room wondering if his words would make a difference.
“The one thing we really need to do is we’ve got to take the term ‘cutting’ out of our vocabulary,” Carlson said. “Cutting is not growing.”
With $2 billion in revenue shortfalls, it’s hard for lawmakers not to think about curbing state spending.
But Sen. Gary Stevens, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said he still appreciates what Fly-in participants have to say.
“I think it has enormous value,” Stevens said. “I think there are some very important issues that came up. We need to stop and listen to the districts.”
Stevens said it gives lawmakers a reality check on how well new policies work.
“I guess it’s easy to pass legislation without thinking about the implications,” Stevens said.
He gave the high school exit exam as an example.
“Ten years ago, there was a real movement across the country,” Stevens said. “We sort of come and go on these things. Now the whole country is moving away from exit exams. Today, they don’t make any sense. ”
So 10 years from now, in the year 2024, what will they say about the year 2014’s education reform bills? And will school board members, if the Fly-in tradition continues, still be asking lawmakers to do more to support education?
Some things probably never change.