Alaska high schoolers are right to speak up

Who better to talk about education in Alaska than students. They could continue leaving it to school administrators, elected officials, their parents and teachers to speak for them, but that would be the easy way out. It’s also been unsuccessful.

Looking to break that losing streak with the governor and state legislators unwilling to adequately fund education, hundreds of high schoolers around the state last week showed they are frustrated at the outcome.

From Ketchikan, Sitka, Juneau, in Anchorage, Eagle River, Homer, Bethel and Utqiaġvik, students staged brief — and orderly — walkouts April 4 to demonstrate in support of more state funding for public schools.

They demonstrated against Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s veto of a comprehensive education bill which would have increased the state funding formula for K-12 education. The formula has not changed since many of the students were in elementary school. And now, nearing adulthood, they see the results of underfunded schools.

Their voices were not only for the governor to hear — though he was not in Juneau to listen when the students walked into the Capitol and climbed the stairs to his floor. The students had followed the news and knew that the Legislature had fallen short by one vote of overriding Dunleavy’s veto of the education bill, so they turned their signs and voices on lawmakers, too.

They marched, waved handmade signs and talked about how inadequate funding is leading to larger class sizes, and how it jeopardizes cultural programs, arts, sports and other student activities. They cited the risk of losing teachers and programs to budget cuts in their school districts. And they talked about the future of education in a state that does not seem to care enough.

“We’re tired of feeling like our voices don’t matter, and we feel the need to show up and send a message … we do care about our future of education for students that come after us, and we believe in a better future,” Sitka High School senior Felix Myers told reporters.

The Alaska Association of Student Government Executive Board organized the protests, showing that even with the state short-funding education for years, the students still have learned how to think for themselves.

And while he wasn’t in his office to hear the students, Dunleavy didn’t ignore their pleas — he just dismissed them. “Money alone will not improve Alaska’s educational outcomes,” the governor said in a statement, downplaying the students’ push for an increase in state funding.

In his statement, he stuck with his pitch for more charter schools and more state-funded options for parents to choose their children’s education, his standard speech during the ongoing education funding debate. It says something when students want to learn and the governor seems unwilling to learn any new lines.

I doubt the student protests last week will make much of a difference. Opponents of a permanent increase in the state funding formula will dismiss it as a staged event, detached from the economic reality of a tight state budget. They will talk about how they support education, mimicking the governor that money is not the only answer.

Lacking enough votes to confront and override the governor on a permanent increase in the funding formula, I expect legislators will appropriate a one-year increase in state funding for K-12 education, just like they did last year, and then hope that the governor does not veto half the money like he did last year.

Maybe Dunleavy will learn something from the students instead of teaching them a lesson that he is in charge.


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