My Turn: Small schools face big problems

  • By DAVID NEES
  • Thursday, January 7, 2016 1:00am
  • Opinion

Faced with loss of state funding, increasing numbers of rural Alaskan schools face the reality of having their doors closed even when there are still students living in these smaller communities that need to get an education. There are a number of problem areas that are raising red flags, but the State of Alaska seems to be unable to identify the root causes of these problems and has no viable solutions to work on solving them.

The community of Beaver recently had a very difficult choice to make. It faced losing state funding to keep the school open because three of its 11 students were out of town during the annual fall seat count that takes place in the month of October. To get funding, the school must have 10 students enrolled on the day the count is taken. If not, then no funding. The district has had to face school closures in other communities like Rampart due to low enrollment numbers.

When you have no choices or diversity in education options, this is what it looks like. Rural Alaska is suffering from the lack of choices.

Per the State of Alaska Constitution, the state must provide a system of education for all of it’s children from K-12. This is a mandate, but under the current challenges Alaska faces fiscally, we are nearing a fiscal cliff that endangers our ability to sustain the current level of funding.

Alaska’s educational system looks very similar to the apartheid system of South Africa: segregation by economic area. The community of Beaver is 99 percent Athabascan and the school is a former Bureau of Indian Affairs institution, but it is no longer eligible for Federal BIA school status or funding.

These school closures like the one facing the community of Beaver are mandated because of the system by which the state funds it schools. The model employed funds central offices and administrative services, which take their large cut for administrative overhead, then in turn allocate the remaining funds to individual schools. This is a perfect model of bureaucracy — inefficient, bloated and irreversible.

Leading the Yukon Flats school district is Superintendent Lance Bowie, a former Wendler Middle School principal. Here you have a former non-Native, urban administrator running a system of schools primarily for Alaska Natives. This sure looks a lot like a State of Alaska version of the BIA to me. The district spends $3,469.25 per student per year just to maintain a central office. This comes out to $832,500 just in the 2015-16 school year alone.

The Yukon Flats School District has failed to meet the 70 percent standard mandate in place since 1998. It regularly reports poor educational achievement, but it does get some credit for spending $25,531 of the $40,700 per child budgeted, or 63 percent, on instruction. The cost of education in Beaver is high, but it is not the fault of Beaver’s residents. A major driving factor in the high cost of operations is Alaska’s system of funding education.

One idea is to consider a different model of funding. Lets look at funding students and not the institution. We can do this through Educational Savings Accounts. Under an ESA system, 70 percent of the Base Student Allocation, which is the money the state gives a district for each student enrolled on Oct. 30, would go into an ESA for the student. Specifically in Beaver’s case, an ESA would be set up that would provide approximately $28,490 to the parent for purchasing instruction for their child. The remaining $12,240, would go to the district for administrative overhead. The local community would be the deciding factor on how much money goes to classroom instruction and how much goes to administrative costs.

In theory, the parents in Beaver could potentially collaborate together, form a charter school, lease the existing school building and hire their own teachers. Those eight students in Beaver looking at a closed school today would under an ESA-style system have $227,920 to purchase supplies and to pay their own teachers. The Yukon Flats School District would get the remaining $97,920 for administrative costs.

The parents of Beaver could also decide the local school does not give them the best choice for their child and send them off to Auntie or Grandma in Fairbanks, Nome, Anchorage or Skagway, for example. The money provided to each student in their ESA could be used to fund the individual student no matter where they chose to get their education. Parents and students would be in control of their learning opportunities and decide where to best use their ESA funds.

It is time to do what is best for the children and parents of rural Alaska and finally empower them. Let’s remove the limitations of this cliff and create real opportunities to enjoy the freedom to learn and not be hindered by a system built around the administrative infrastructure of a state bureaucracy modeled after the failed system of the 1950s and 1960s.

• David Nees lives in Anchorage.

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