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5/18/2019
PoV: We’re proud, but concerned products of AK public schools

By KIERA O’BRIEN
and THOMAS KRASNICAN

For the past several years, as we have pursued undergraduate and graduate education at institutions in the Lower 48, few things have filled us with more pride than telling new friends about our home state, Alaska.

On a daily basis, we are grateful for our experiences growing up in Alaska, and specifically for the opportunities granted to us by our state’s public education system. Countless teachers and administrators, in high school and beyond, played a part in our respective childhoods not only due to their role as educators but also through their incredible community-building efforts in Anchorage and Ketchikan. We are proud products of Alaska public schools. And that is why we have watched with growing interest and alarm as our state’s electorate has increasingly exhibited attitudes that jeopardize future generations of young Alaskans’ access to the quality of public school education we both benefited from.

Both of us owe an enormous debt to motivated, attentive public school teachers like those we had at Service High School and Ketchikan High School. In high school, both of us at different times were selected as Alaska’s delegates to the U.S. Senate Youth Program, an immersive government education experience in Washington.

 I (Thomas) would never have heard of this scholarship opportunity if an Anchorage School District guidance counselor who knew me well had not hunted me down and told me excitedly that “this seems perfect for you.” She helped me compile the application materials and secure the required endorsements. The USSYP scholarship changed the course of my life; it is the reason I went to the Naval Academy. The same year I left for Annapolis, the educator who helped me apply lost her job due to budget cuts. Sadly, this was only one of many times we witnessed the cruel and unnecessary insecurity we ask many of our educators, and students by extension, to endure on an annual basis.

My (Kiera’s) parents first came to Alaska when my father accepted a middle school science position in 1993. Since then, my sisters and I have all attended public schools in the Ketchikan Gateway Borough School District. Both my parents still work at the high school, and at the end of this school year, my father will have given 26 years to the public school system in-state. In middle school my algebra 1 textbook was falling to pieces thanks to fiscal constraints. But my teacher took the time over countless lunches to teach me how to program my Ti-84 calculator, which has impacted both my collegiate studies and summer internships. Like Thomas, my selection for USSYP also altered the trajectory of my life. The support I found at my high school during my nomination process gave me the confidence to send applications to Ivy League schools I’d never dreamed would be within reach.

Students experience when we are surrounded and known by a stable cohort of community-rooted teachers are difficult to quantify, but cannot be understated.

High-quality, committed educators can and do overcome many budget deficiencies. When we’ve needed letters of recommendation for various applications, being able to call upon teachers who knew us for extended periods of time has been critically important. It is a tragedy for future students that our state’s policy preferences are forcing so many teachers, who have persisted in their missions despite financial challenges, to re-evaluate whether staying in Alaska is worth it .

Moreover, these same policy preferences will adversely impact Alaska’s ability to capitalize on taxpayers’ and educators’ costly investments in its young people. We know that many students our age who have left Alaska for college or military service are watching these events closely, factoring them into personal decisions about whether or not to eventually return to the state that raised them. We’re watching not only economic and business trends, but also our state’s political character: what does it say about Alaska that the notion of “stolen” PFDs can prove the decisive issue in a statewide election, driving citizens to the streets to wave signs and protest, while a bill seeking to resolve our former teachers’ retirement pay cannot even get a proper hearing or debate in the state Legislature? Budget analysis aside, the myopia seemingly underlying this dynamic has created a perception, among young people, that does not bode well for our state’s longevity. It raises the question: will the public education and related economic benefits we enjoyed be available to our future children?

We believe investing in Alaska’s teachers and students need not be portrayed as a partisan issue in order to score political points. We’re both concerned with balancing the budget. We do not see the inability to fund education adequately as a deficiency unique to the Dunleavy administration. Characterizing the problem as such dismisses years of struggle at the state and local level to obtain appropriate funding for education in Alaska. We hope to see Democrats, Independents, and Republicans like Sen. Mia Costello, who is advocating for an early education funding constitutional amendment, join together to consider the tangible benefits of retaining our best and most committed teachers, and opening their minds to a rigorous discussion of the wide range of policy solutions and tax reforms that could easily ensure the fiscal feasibility of boosting teacher retention.

We freely admit that our perspective on this issue is shaped by our age. Not enough time has passed since our graduations from Alaska public high schools for us to have forgotten the invaluable, often decisive, impact our teachers made on us, our families, and our classmates. Ensuring that public school teachers have the peace of mind and financial security necessary to making that impact in Alaska — rather than somewhere else — is worth every penny we can afford.

———

Thomas Krasnican was valedictorian of the Robert Service High School class of 2014, graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy, and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in public policy at the

University of Chicago.

Kiera O’Brien was valedictorian of the Ketchikan High School class of 2016 and is a junior studying Government at Harvard College, where she served as president of the Republican Club.