My Turn: Alaska education in 2016: Fiscal crisis or golden opportunity?

  • By PAUL BERG
  • Friday, March 25, 2016 1:02am
  • Opinion

Today Alaska faces a fiscal crisis of monumental proportions. Alaska residents are facing an uncertain future. Nowhere is that uncertainty more troubling than in the public school system. The extent of the monetary shortfall virtually guarantees that public schools will undergo vast changes in the next two to three years. While this prospect may at first appear frightening, I would like to suggest that there is a golden lining in this financial crisis. The fiscal challenge presents us with an opportunity to critically reexamine our educational priorities and to diligently search for improved means of delivering quality education to all Alaska students.

As we begin the process of critically examining our educational expenditures in Alaska, we need to be aware that there is a second crisis facing Alaska education, a crisis far more threatening and potentially damaging than the budget shortfall. This is the crisis of educational outcomes which is engulfing major regions of the state, a crisis which is dramatically impacting the Alaska Native community. This second crisis can best be described by several of its more dramatic symptoms:

1. Alaska has for years had one of the highest per capita suicide rates in the nation. According to the state’s Bureau of Vital Statistics, Alaska Native males between the ages of 15 to 24 have a suicide rate nearly seven times that of other Americans.

2. Alaska Natives have the highest male indigenous incarceration rate in the world. In 2013, 4.1 percent of all Alaska Native males 18 and older were in Alaska state prisons.

3. In October of 2011, the Violence Policy Center in Washington, D.C., reported that Alaska leads the nation in per capita gun deaths. As of June 8, 2013, Alaska ranked third in the nation in per capita gun deaths.

4. In 2013, according to FBI statistics, Alaska was the most violent state with over 600 violent crimes per 100,000 population. An ongoing epidemic of sexual violence leads the crime statistics.

And the list goes on, from alcoholism to sexual assault to diabetes rates. The clusters of negative symptoms threaten to overwhelm communities and whole regions of rural Alaska.

In Alaska, we have succeeded in building one of the most expensive rural education systems in the world with one of the world’s worst performance records. For example, in the Yukon/Kuskokwin Delta, the average annual cost of education per student exceeds $40,000 per year. In terms of educational outcomes, the students who go through this education system are among the unhealthiest both physically and psychologically as reflected in the above cited statistics. The questions is — how can this be? After being part of the Alaska education system for the past 40 years, I would like to venture an analysis.

Alaska rural school districts are products of the Western education system. They teach a standard, Lower 48 urban curriculum. They are largely administered and taught by administrators and teachers hired from outside of Alaska. The majority of the village schools are actively removing the language, culture, history, local knowledge base and identity from Native children. Alaska is operating an extremely expensive colonialistic education system which is producing massive failure and human misery. The state of Alaska can no longer afford to operate such an expensive and disastrous rural education system.

What are the alternatives? Ironically, the state’s budget shortfall is also an opportunity to both reduce educational expenditures and address the negative educational outcomes in rural Alaska. The good news is that solutions to both these challenges involves the expenditure of less, not more, money.

For example: the Yukon/Kuskokwim Delta is the homeland of about 21,000 Yupik people. The Yupik language is spoken by at least half the Native population. The villages in the Delta are served by six school districts. The district offices are staffed predominantly by administrators and managers brought up from the Lower 48 who stay from one to three years.

In terms of management, the duplication of administrative and management services is financially unsustainable. It makes far more sense to consolidate the six school districts into one Yupik Education Administrative Region with one administrative base for the entire Delta. The vast improvements in communications technology in the Delta over the last several years make this a realistic and viable option.

The Yupik Education Administrative Region I am proposing would not be a new school district. It would be a new organizational structure managed by the Yupik people. Such an educational organization would be based on many successful examples found around the world. Among these are the Greenlandic Inuit education system, the Inuit education system in the new Canadian province of Nunavut, the Sami education system in Norway and the Native Hawaiian schools. In each of the above cases, positive change came about from a willingness to truly listen to the voice of indigenous people and a desire to honor the basic principles of self-determination.

Alaska’s rural education system is a colonialistic holdover from the past and an anomaly in the modern world. Unfortunately, rural Alaska Native education has become a huge industry employing large numbers of temporary non-Alaskans. Bringing about change will not be easy. The rural education industry will go to great lengths to defend and perpetuate itself. If, however, we have the courage to critically examine our current rural educational system and make the needed changes, future generations will look back on this time of financial uncertainty and say, “This was their finest hour.”

• Paul Berg has been an Alaskan educator for the past 40 years.

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