My Turn: Education is a high priority for our administration

  • By GOV. BILL WALKER and LT. GOV. BYRON MALLOTT
  • Sunday, February 14, 2016 1:03am
  • Opinion

The four Walker children and the five Mallott children are products of Alaska’s public education system. Tessa Walker Linderman, who pursued her master’s and doctorate degrees, says the best teacher she ever had was her Honors English teacher at West High School in Anchorage. Toni Mallott, the lieutenant governor’s wife, taught for two decades in Alaska’s schools.

We have some of the best, most dedicated teachers right here in Alaska. We also have enormous challenges. Too many of our young people are leaving school early. Alaska has some of the lowest high school graduation rates in the nation, especially among our low-income students and students with disabilities.

The cost of education in Alaska is high, especially in rural parts of the state. We must do more to make the cost of a high-quality education affordable and sustainable.

Education is one of the obligations of the state specifically spelled out in Alaska’s Constitution. Our founders recognized that every child has the right to an education — and if we don’t pay now, we pay later.

Non-high school graduates have worse health and their life expectancy is 10 years shorter than high school graduates. The impacts go beyond the individual. Studies show that those who don’t finish high school are more likely to utilize government services throughout their lives. Those without diplomas cost taxpayers an average $292,000.

The other side of the coin is this: National data shows that states with higher rates of education have higher median wages. High school graduates earn on average $10,386 more annually than non-graduates. Education also increases regional prosperity. Put simply, education is a critical economic driver.

But education is about more than dollars and cents. It’s about values. Equal access to opportunity is a fundamental value of democratic society, and a core value of the Walker-Mallott administration.

Education is the means by which we ensure that every Alaskan has the opportunity to succeed. While we cannot guarantee prosperity to every individual Alaskan, we believe every Alaskan should have the opportunity to prosper in whatever way he or she measures prosperity — be it a quality of life built around tradition, culture and lifestyle, or the most modern involvement in our great world.

Education is that path to opportunity. Education is the springboard for innovation. It’s the springboard for creativity.

We believe all Alaskans should have access to quality education regardless of where they live or how much money their family earns.

We believe in local control of education within a consistent set of high standards for all students. We need the right options on the menu – the local community knows how best to meet its students’ needs.

We believe in accountability on the part of all those responsible for educating Alaskans, and those who allocate public resources to educate our children.

We believe in public dollars for public education.

We are passionate about career and technical education. We are a diverse state with diverse needs, and all students deserve the chance to find a niche where they can thrive. Nome’s vocational training program, for example, helped increase Nome area high school graduation rates from 32 percent to 69 percent. Let’s expand on those successes.

Education is the key to “growing our own,” whether it’s investors for our Permanent Fund or engineers and welders for our next pipeline project. We are tired of importing a workforce.

We want Alaska to go from the bottom of the national quartile in high school graduation to the top quartile – that is, among the top 25 percent of states in graduating our students. To get there, we must fund our education system adequately. But it will take more than just money.

We need to broaden the conversation about education. We want to focus on:

• Empowering local districts to keep their students in school, and to bring out the best in their students.

• Bringing down energy, health and retirement costs that are siphoning too much money out of the classroom. This will take innovation and efficiency.

• Developing our broadband infrastructure so students and teachers throughout the state can access the resources of an interconnected world.

• Finding ways to improve and fund early education so all children can start school on a more equal footing.

Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “We cannot always build the future of our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.”

Those words ring especially true today. In these challenging budget times, perhaps the best investment we can make is in preparing the next generation to lead. We will undoubtedly leave our children and grandchildren some problems to solve – so let’s be sure they have learned the skills to solve them.

• Bill Walker and Byron Mallott are the first Alaska-born governor and lieutenant governor to serve the state together. In 2014 they formed a nonpartisan Unity ticket.

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