As a teacher and president of Alaska’s largest professional union, my highest priority is student learning. We, who think first and foremost about our students when we vote, are looking for one quality above all others: courage. Courage to right our fiscal ship and make difficult decisions for our students and state. In my view, only one candidate for governor has displayed that characteristic time and time again — Gov. Bill Walker.
Faced with a $3.7 billion deficit as he came into office, Walker has reduced that figure to $700 million. His focus on a long-term fiscal plan has saved Alaska from a deep recession. Reversing our state’s financial woes took courage beyond what any Alaska governor has had to display in recent memory.
Walker’s actions have delivered stability to a population of Alaskans who need it most during unstable times — Alaska’s students. While nearly every other branch of state government saw drastic reductions to close the budget gap, Walker shielded our students from drastic cuts, ensuring that they have the resources they need to continue their education.
Walker has done more to better our education system than any governor in recent memory. He has brought together hundreds of Alaskans from across the political spectrum and unified Alaska’s vision for great schools behind Alaska’s Education Challenge.
This is the first time in Alaska’s history that the state has a unified vision for public education. No other governor has brought together parents, community members, school boards, superintendents, principals, teachers, and educators of all types who work in Alaska’s schools. Walker’s education commissioner, Michael Johnson, is respected by everyone in the system, and nobody doubts his sincerity and commitment to improving Alaska’s public schools.
Sincerity and character are at the center of Walker’s administration. His cabinet — including Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott — is made up of the most talented Alaskans without regard to their political party. He has made sure the voices of all Alaskans have been heard, and he has avoided the hyperpartisanship that has plagued national politics.
It’s easy to forget now that oil prices collapsed just before Walker took office. He faced the largest budget crisis ever in the state and proposed solutions. He put forth nearly a dozen revenue measures, and even though the Legislature balked at almost all of the ideas, he pressed forward. Alaska could have easily slipped into a deeper recession, and we could have been facing massive cuts to all areas of government service, including the Permanent Fund Dividend.
Knowing that the PFD was in jeopardy, he set aside part of the dividend and reinvested it into the principle of the fund. He has compared the decision to closing fishing on a river so that enough salmon could get upriver and spawn. Now, the dividend is healthier and better able to be sustained for future generations. The easier decision would have been to do nothing, but Walker showed tremendous political courage, and he deserves our thanks.
Every day, in classrooms across Alaska, teachers and students work together in a civil and respectful manner. We encourage our students to tackle the hardest problems and apply sound reason to the decisions that they make. Shouldn’t we expect that same approach from our politicians? Shouldn’t they listen to everyone and not just yell and scream from one side of the aisle or the other? That’s the example Walker and Mallott have provided for the Alaska, and that makes us different than the Lower 48. And that’s just fine with me.
Alaska’s 150,000 students deserve a great education, and Walker’s ideas and focus have the best chance of resulting in improved student learning. That’s what Alaskans want, and that’s what Alaska’s students deserve.
Thank you Walker and Mallott for making the difficult decisions to protect Alaska’s long-term interests and invest in our future — not just financially, but also with our students, our most important renewable resource. That’s courage.
• Tim Parker is the President of the National Education Association — Alaska. My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire.