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Students stage silent march at Capitol, education budget still in limbo

By Rhonda McBride 7:51 AM April 17, 2014
JUNEAU –

From boisterous demonstrations at the Loussac Library in Anchorage to rallies at the state Capitol, there’s been a lot of noise made about education this session.

But on Wednesday, a group of about three dozen students chose silence as a way to voice their feelings about school funding.

Bridget Galvin, an 11th-grader at Steller Secondary School in Anchorage, organized a silent march. Galvin is one of the founders of Students With a Voice, a statewide group that counts about 800 members. Galvin is also the daughter of Alyse and Pat Galvin, active in the Great Alaska Schools group.

Earlier this week, Galvin went to two schools in the Juneau School District — Juneau Douglas and Thunder Mountain high schools — to ask for help from student government leaders who circulated flyers asking students to show up on the Capitol steps on Wednesday at 4 p.m.

At the appointed time, Galvin stood on the steps alone, waiting, wondering if the Juneau student government leaders would come through. But by 4:30 p.m., a crowd of students had assembled carrying signs with slogans like “We are the future.”

“Just a few students here in Juneau can represent a whole variety of students all across Alaska, and we want to make sure every student’s voice is heard,” Galvin said.

But the students chose not to use their voices, and proceeded to climb the marble staircase at the Capitol in silence. Their footsteps echoed all the way to the top, the fifth floor, where the House and Senate finance committees have hearing rooms and offices.

From there, they began their slow trek through every floor of the building.

“This silent march is a little symbolic of how students feel, how they don’t have a voice in an issue that will affect them for the rest of their lives,” Galvin said.

The silent march comes at a time when lawmakers have been very quiet about education spending.

The ball is in the Senate Finance Committee’s court. They’ve been working quietly behind the scenes on a revision of a HB 278, a suite of education initiatives which passed the House last week.

The bill includes a $300 increase in the base student allocation over three years, as well as a one-time, $30 million infusion of cash.

The BSA is part of a complicated formula the state uses to decide how much to spend per student, and now stands at $5,680.

That amount is adjusted upwards for smaller, rural schools, where costs are higher.

Senate leaders think the formula, which has been in place since 1997, is flawed and want to scrap it.

They’ve proposed a plan which includes $100 million in spending — $25 million from an existing pot of money, with $75 million in new dollars. In the Senate plan, the money doesn’t go into the BSA.

Senate leaders like Sen. Pete Kelly, co-chairman of the finance committee, are strongly opposed to putting money into the BSA because it would commit the Legislature to future increases.

“If we just raise the BSA, then what we do is take a system we thinks needs to be changed and freeze it in place at a higher level and make it permanent,” said Kelly, who doesn’t want to raise the ceiling for the BSA above its current level.

Kelly said the world is changing and education, as well as the way it’s funded, needs to change, too.

Rather than continually increase the BSA, Kelly wants to see the funding shift to digital learning programs to meet the needs of an increasing number of students who want to learn with computers and tap into national distance learning programs.

“We’re getting into an e-learning environment, where people are going more for correspondence, where parents want more choice for their kids,” he said.

“We have to look at the right thing to do, whether people march or not,” Kelly said.

A compromise between the Senate and House plans is in the works, but with just a few days in the session it’s still under wraps.

Advocates for increasing school spending say neither plan does the job of restoring recent teachers and support staff cuts, nor do they head off future layoffs.

One parent pushing for increases, Becca Bernard, who has two children in the Anchorage School District, observed the student march and applauded their efforts.

“Many, many of these students are experiencing these cuts firsthand. They’re seeing what happens when great teachers are cut,” said Bernard, who is also one of the organizers of the Great Alaska Schools movement.

GAS is a grassroots group which claims more than 1,500 members statewide.

“They’re seeing what happens when graduation counselors and regular counselors are cut, so they know better than anybody what happens when we don’t fund our schools enough,” Bernard said.

At Wednesday’s Capitol rally, students carried signs calling for a $400 increase in the BSA next year and a $125 increase in each of the two following years.

Bridget Galvin said she hopes lawmakers connect to their message, “We are the future.”

“These kids that we’re with in high school, they’re going to be our coworkers, our doctors, our lawyers, our politicians,” Galvin said. “It’s important that we’re well-educated, we’re socially and emotionally ready to go into those jobs and go into the workforce.”

The other co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Sen. Kevin Meyer of Anchorage, said there’s a philosophical divide in the Legislature about school spending.

“I think everyone here wants to do everything possible for education,” Meyer said. “Education is very important to all of us.”

“We’re working on the House’s bill which had a lot of different variables as it pertains to education, and we’re trying to improve on that,” Meyer said.

“Everybody has a strong, emotional opinion about education,” he said. “It’s hard to get consensus.”

The time for consensus is running out, with just days remaining in the 2014 session.

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