Action delayed on anthem, Alaska flag song mandate at ASD schools
The Anchorage School Board delayed making a final decision Monday on a move promoting singing of the national anthem in local schools, after hours of emotional testimony by members of both the public and the board.
More than two dozen people testified regarding an amendment proposed by board member Dave Donley, calling for “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “Alaska’s Flag” to be sung in succession at the beginning of the school day on the first school day of every week.
Before Monday’s board meeting, Jim Minnery with the conservative group Alaska Family Action sent an email to supporters urging them to attend and testify.
“It should come as no surprise that there are members of this body who are opposed to such a measure,” Minnery wrote. “They believe, incredibly and unfortunately, that patriotic songs such as Frances Scott Key’s poem we all grew up singing and, despite some NFL players taking a knee, still sing, are indicative of a negative past of our country and should be shunned.”
The meeting regarding Donley’s amendment spanned several other topics and stretched to nearly five hours. The vast majority of people who spoke regarding the amendment, including many military veterans, were strongly in favor of it.
School Board candidate David Nees, who recently attempted to put Anchorage’s plastic shopping-bag ban directly before voters in April's vote-by-mail municipal election, was one of those speakers.
“Schools and education are cultural institutions,” Nees said. “It’s how we pass our culture on from generation to generation: we do it with government in America, we do it with schools and we do it with education.”
“In addition to developing our children’s intelligence, our schools should endeavor to develop their character,” said Ann Brown. “Pride in their country, state and institutions of government, as symbolized in part by things like our anthem and flag song, helps youngsters understand that there are things bigger than themselves and their personal wants and desires.”
“For me, it’s even more important than reading writing and arithmetic for students to learn love of country,” said Peter Goldberg, who described himself as a retired U.S. Army colonel.
One man directly challenged the board, saying he attended the meeting because he had “heard that there were some board members that thought the national anthem was too militaristic, it takes too much time, it’s offensive to some.”
“How dare you think like that — sit up there in front of us with the national colors behind you, the Alaska state flag behind you — take our tax dollars, ask for more tax dollars and then tell us we can’t do the national anthem in our schools once a week?” the man asked. “How bloody well dare you?”
School Board president Starr Marsett broke up applause after the man’s statement, but Nees and others could be seen mock-clapping in midair afterward.
Anchorage Education Association president Tom Klaameyer spoke against the proposal, emphasizing that he did so personally as an Air Force veteran rather than as a union official. He called Donley’s proposal “an amendment searching for a problem,” noting that patriotic virtues are taught in schools across the district.
“I think learning best happens when it’s embedded in relevant well-designed curricula, which it already is, so not the mindless repetition,” Klaameyer said. “It’s similar to a forced apology, if you’ve ever tried to force a child to give an apology, just — they can say the words, but it doesn’t mean anything.”
ASD English-language teacher Jessica Minguez said requiring the songs to be sung weekly would destroy the meaning of doing so voluntarily.
“There may be schools that choose this for themselves, schools where the national anthem or the Alaska flag song have special meaning and therefore the community likes to take time out of academics to make it part of their day, but to require it as policy does not lend meaning to a community,” she said. “The action isn’t meaningful if it is not a choice.”
Non-voting student board member Emily Hickox weighed in before board members formally took up the proposal, telling the crowd she felt bad for holding “the opposite view of pretty much all of you in here.”
“I think that the idea behind this amendment is great, and I have respect for everything you guys have said,” Hickox said. “However, I would urge the board to vote no, because just having this play every Monday for the school year it’s going to make the kids not appreciate it as much.”
Donley, speaking for his proposal, responded to Klaameyer’s concern about the amendment’s purpose by citing queries to local schools.
“The final version of the survey that was done of our elementary schools indicates that four schools do no patriotic music at all in elementary schools; the final version of the survey of our secondary schools said that two of our major middle schools have no playing of the national anthem at all,” Donley said. “Those were the survey results; I found that shocking, after three attempts to get responses from the schools, this was the final results.”
Donley said two schools at which the anthem and “Alaska’s Flag” are sung daily, Eagle Academy Charter and Northern Lights ABC schools, are among the district’s top academic performers. He called that a counter to claims that singing the songs would impede academic performance, telling parents that the queries had led to a tactical victory at the schools that weren’t singing the songs even without a board vote.
“I think they’re all doing it now,” Donley said. “I think they got the message from the three surveys that were sent out asking them to respond so I think that problem has been solved, ladies and gentlemen.”
Board member Alisha Hilde said that she “would love to do a good-governance analysis of this policy,” including time slots for the singing of the songs beyond that Donley had proposes. The board’s Governance Committee hadn’t had a chance to do so, however.
“When we chose not to send this to the full board, I did ask Member Donley, ‘Do you want to consider this in a more open way? Do you want to say maybe ‘four times a month’ or just look at it in a broader way?,’” Hilde said. “His choice was to pursue his specific wording.”
Board member Andy Holleman proposed sending Donley’s amendment back to the Governance Committee for that review. He directly addressed Monday’s crowd, telling them “an email went out that suggested that if we don’t pass this the anthem and the flag song won’t be heard in our schools.”
“It also suggested there is no patriotism in our schools and it has to be restored by passing this policy and I’m going to say it’s simply not the case,” Holleman said. “And certainly all of our schools are not alike but I will say that first, our board did not take a position on our anthem being too militaristic, and I don’t think that characterizes the feelings of the board. I think that you have been misled by an email that I’m not sure what the purpose was.”
Holleman also detailed some reasons why schools might not sing the anthem or the flag song at the start of a school day, which were logistical rather than ideological.
“We’ve got some co-located schools that share a PA system that don’t start at the same time,” Holleman said. “We have schools where some students arrive late because they’re in special programs other places.”
Donley responded that the amendment deserved an up-or-down vote from the full board, warning that “it may not come up again if it doesn’t get a second” sending it to the board once more.
Marsett closed debate with an emotional interlude, agreeing in principle with Donley’s argument for an up-or-down vote but saying she would ultimately vote against his amendment.
“I’m as patriotic as the next person: my father was Special Forces, he went to Vietnam twice, I was with him when he got spit on,” Marsett said, pausing briefly to cry. “It is emotional and I don’t say that it’s not. I have served in the military, my husband has served in the military, I think it has ‘Property of Uncle Sam’ stamped on my butt, but I don’t agree with this amendment, I’ll just tell you that right now.”
The board ultimately sent Donley’s proposal back to the Governance Committee on a 4-3 vote, with Holleman, Hilde, Elisa Snelling and Mark Foster in favor. Marsett, Donley and Deena Mitchell were no votes on doing so.
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