As a culture, we revere education. Our enlightened perspective has been confirmed since ancient times, and was a foundational premise of our Alaska Constitution. A proverb captures well the elements of education we find desirable: “…Buy the truth and do not sell it—wisdom, instruction and insight as well. The father of a righteous child has great joy; a man who fathers a wise son rejoices in him. (Proverbs 23: 22–24). “Instruction” is included with truth, wisdom, insight, and parental delight. Education is an inherent element of our humanity. This explains why our Alaska Constitution nobly directs State government (the Legislature) to provide for a system of public schools (VII.1). However, in so doing, the Constitution effectively pins a check on the collar of every potential student, creating an artificial incentive to enroll every child into the public school system. This incentive can overwhelm the incentives for truth, instruction, wisdom, insight, and successful parenting.
The revenue each student represents is withdrawn from the annual budget allocation using a complex legal “formula” intended to keep distribution equitable. The law supposedly keeps things fair by applying factors to adjust for the cost differences between children and is predictably a legislative target for tweaks to favor various interests. It’s rarely tweaked to reduce spending. The factors compensate for varying costs of local commodities, transportation, facility size, special education, alternative or charter schools, and many other variables. Any legislator who has tried to work with the funding formula can tell you it is far less than perfect and very difficult to reform the system. Every aspect of the formula has political watchdogs to protect specific revenue items, effectively making it almost useless to achieve sweeping, comprehensive reform.
Thanks to wise legislative priorities, Alaska statutes give unquestionable authority to parents to decide whether or not to enroll their children in the public school system. Alaska Statute AS 14.30.010 (B) (12) is a hard-won assurance confirming parents are in control of their child/children’s education. The big question, of course, is, “What happens to the potential revenue when a student does not enroll in the public system?” Parents who opt to send their children to a private school or teach them at home “deprive” the school districts of potential revenue… lots of it. A now-retired Commissioner of Education, made a policy call to authorize School districts to operate “home school support programs” enabling them to enroll home school students into the public school system to access the otherwise lost revenue. Accounting methods do not make it easy to figure out the actual cost (value) or the services rendered. If the school district were a business, this value would be called “profit”. The revenue is not restricted, meaning the District may choose to spend however/wherever they need. Each District is free to create its programs to create a competitive option for parents. As you might expect, some Districts offer very attractive incentives to encourage participation.
It’s wonderful and equitable for parents who choose to home school to be potentially subsidized! It is noble and just to enroll children in a home school support program to be eligible to receive reimbursement to help pay for computers, non-sectarian book, equipment, and the education portion of family vacations, activities, travel and events. Each expenditure is approved (or not) by the enrolling District. Students get access to certified teachers as resources to assist in the parent-selected curriculum and other various services depending on the district. In exchange for education funds, parents must complete the authorizing reimbursement paperwork and subject their children to standardized testing… which is basic for postsecondary endeavors.
At some level everybody wins! Parents are happy enough to enroll their children; the public school system is happy with the revenue stream; the legislature is happy to get data (testing results).
At another level, what has evolved is novel enough we don’t yet know what the end results will be! We do know homeschool students are generally doing very well academically and are proving to be coveted college and trade-school students. Alaskans have arguably placed a higher priority on education than other States – measured by expenditure per capita for each student. Huge challenges are ahead if we really value education for education’s sake. We will see how we handle intensified competition for revenue as we encounter necessary spending cuts. The way forward is inextricably linked to increasing parental educational choice and control because of their inherent drive to educate their children. Do not forget the crushing testing reports showing Alaska fourth from the bottom in the nation! (www.nationsreportcard.gov). We love education, but it is an open question whether our public school system has too much focus on self-preservation. Needed reform legislation is too often held hostage by special interest groups who are loudly appalled by even a consideration of the benefits of more parental control (home schools, vouchers, or education savings accounts). Their minds are officially closed until they are assured traditional system revenue is safe.
This was also submitted as an article to The People’s Paper.