Bob Griffin: While funding is adequate for Alaska schools, results are still disappointing

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By BOB GRIFFIN

We’ve seen a huge battle erupt in Juneau over school funding this year — when our energy should be focused on how we re-allocate our education dollars into programs that produce the results our parents demand and our kids deserve. 

A January 2024 joint  Rutgers/University of Miami study ranked Alaska 2nd in the nation in overall best funding adequacy in 2021, with a score of 95 out of a possible 100. Florida was ranked last in the study with a funding adequacy score of score of 12 out of 100. Despite that enormous difference in fiscal effort, 28.8% of 2022 Florida high school graduates scored a 3 or higher on at least one AP exam (3rd highest in the US), compared to 11.9% in Alaska (45th in the US).

The Rutgers study accounts for cost of living differences between different locations and judges funding adequacy based primarily on the percentage of a states economy that is dedicated to funding K-12. Alaska was also ranked fourth in the nation in improving funding adequacy since 2009 and first in the nation in improving funding adequacy since 2018 by the study. 

Alaska was also judged to have a very equitable K-12 funding system according to Rutgers.  There was some mild equity criticism from the authors that Alaska slightly underfunds students who come from families in the top 20% of income levels compared to exceptionally high funding levels for students in lower income brackets.

One factor that makes our K-12 system even better funded that the Rutgers study reveals, is the effect of the additional dollars that go to neighborhood schools because of Alaska’s very high rate of very inexpensive correspondence programs. Over 16% of Alaska K-12 students participate in correspondence school programs at a cost of $5364/student compares to over $22,000/student for the state average.

Those correspondence students get very little (if any) local or federal funding, and only consume only about 4% of overall K-12 spending. This results in the remaining 96% of funding concentrated in the 86% of kids in non-correspondence programs. The additional funds per student is not insignificant—around an extra $3,000 dollars per student per year available in brick-and-mortar public schools than would otherwise be available if those funds had to be shared with the 21,000 kids in correspondence programs. 

Some have argued that kids in correspondence programs actually make district poorer — taking state K-12 dollars away from school districts. This would be true, if all the costs of educating a child were “fixed costs.” In actuality, the vast majority of cost of educating a child are “variable costs”.  For every group of approximately 25 students the district needs another teacher.

More kids eventually mean more payroll clerks, bus drivers with additional busses, more psychologist and other support staff, etc. A little thought experiment: If the fixed cost model had merit, we would be able to add 1,000 new students to a district with little or no additional funding. 

While our funding is adequate – results are still disappointing. Alaska does have some isolated pockets of success — like our best-in-the-country public charter school results, as pointed out in a recent Harvard Study. However, our test results for more traditional programs, for kids rich and poor, lags far below the US average for comparable demographics, according to the US Department of Education National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).       

The conversation about the number of dollars we can or should dedicate to K-12 in Alaska has been taking up most of the oxygen in Juneau, yet I’m looking forward to moving past that debate and being able to collaborate with all K-12 stakeholders in analyzing how we refocus our significant fiscal effort into better outcomes.

Our kids are just as bright, our teachers are just as dedicated and our parents love their kids just as much as in Florida or anywhere else. The only thing holding us back from producing better outcomes is the courage to make the public policy changes that better focus our resources.  

Bob Griffin is on the board of Alaska Policy Forum and serves on the Alaska Board of Education and Early Development, but writes this in his own capacity.

22 COMMENTS

  1. So between his appointment to the state board of education and his membership on the board of the Alaska policy forum, there are very few people better placed to do something about this. Yet, Mr Griffin feels the need to tell the rest of us about the problems he is NOT fixing and frame it in a way like we have some of the blame.

    Please, Gov Dunleavy, appoint someone else in this position who will do something other than talk down to the masses like it’s our fault while he has done absolutely nothing in his official capacity but publish his own accolades and chase school busses like lawyers chase ambulances.

    • Thanks for engaging. There are some promising indications that we are making some progress with public policy changes like the Alaska Reads Act passed in 2022. SB 140 contains several excellent education reforms that would move us more in the direction of policy choices that have been made by some of the most improved education systems in the US like Florida and Mississippi. Our charter school are producing the best outcomes in the US and we should expand those opportunities for the hundreds of parents who have their kids on waiting lists for those popular programs.

      Do I wish we could move faster toward a system that prioritizes kids over adult agendas? Yes. But I’m just one vote on a body that can make regulation changes in title 14. What we really need is courageous legislation that emulates successful laws in high-performing states.

      • Please list some of the laws you say we need to emulate. I am very interested in solutions, much more than this ongoing fluffy criticism. As a rural resident, a fiscal conservative, and an education advocate, I have some serious heart burn with your continued statement that “While our funding is adequate – results are still disappointing”. We have excellent District leadership across several rural school districts here in Alaska, and we have some amazing students that graduate out here and go on to be extremely productive successful adults. Those young people come from households that highly value education. Also in our districts are families that offer their children no support, or worse, suck the life out of their children actually telling them daily that they won’t measure up to anything, they “ain’t shit”. Well – Anthony Oliver has a few things right, our teachers are “working overtime hours for bullshit pay” trying to get these kids the support and encouragement they need to overcome and succeed. Yet, our rural districts have cut and scrimped for so many years given increased base costs, we have all but cut every emotionally and physically engaging school course from music, to art, to physical education, and in many districts, sports travel. If we don’t have local tax revenues, we rely on the Legislature and our grant writers for every “extra” our students get. It’s draining. It’s time to stop lumping all our school districts in these types of articles. Representative Cronk understands this, and rural Alaska is grateful for his leadership on this front this year.

    • Insider, Mr. Griffin has followed the K12 education system for almost 2 decades. He uses data and facts, not opinions and emotions to come to his conclusions. The Alaska Policy Forum puts out research and valid data on Alaska’s K12 education system as well. It is not responsible for legislative action.

      Mr. Griffin, as a member of the State Board of Education, has been the primary supporter of improving reading in our schools. And you can thank him for the Alaska Reads Act which the legislature passed. Because of his persistence, in spite of tremendous push back from the Education Industry, our children will be able to read at grade level rather than being nearly dead last in 4th grade reading according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (47th our of 51).

      Re “chasing school busses”: Are you referring to the Mudflats false accusation in the past?

      We can all thank Bob Griffin for his data-driven efforts on improving K12 education for ALL Alaskan children!

    • Some correspondence school kids are home schooled. Some attend micro school or pod schools or a variety of different options for parents to come together and pool their resources to educate their children along with other like-minded parents.

    • Sara, Correspondence students are those enrolled in state approved schools. They do not attend the usual ZIP code brick-and-mortar schools but do home school. Examples would be IDEA, Raven, and many others. This allows the parent to select the non-sectarian curriculum and also get minimal funding from the correspondence district. Unfortunately, a Correspondence student is not as valued as a brick-and-mortar student–that child is only valued at 90% of the Base Student Allocation. There are other parents who are “independent” home schoolers who do not take any government funding and choose the best fit for their children.

    • There are acute shortages of educators throughout the country. One of the findings for a commission launched Governor Dunleavy to address teacher recruitment and retention found that many teachers were interested in more compensation among some of their highest concerns. The Governor has proposed a trial program to pay teachers yearly bonuses for 3 years — directly too the teachers, so the resources can’t be diverted by districts.

  2. Audit!!! Audit the financials and what is being taught or not taught in the classrooms! The people deserve to know what their taxes are being used for.

  3. We in Anchorage have an equation that is unsolvable. Left leaning leadership (ASD and School board) that know no other or seek to accept any other process accept the same o same o equation of “just add money”. The unsolvable is the premise of how the education dollar is currently allocated. They are enveloped in a monopoly and don’t acknowledge that students and parents would both be more satisfied if the money was allocated to follow students rather than into the abyss of the fortress of bureaucratic academia (the largest monopoly on earth). There would be direct incentive, fulfilled and happier teachers, and eventually more pay reflected on better student performance. This equation lands after the equal sign on a populous that for the most part has trusted these leaders and can’t put their finger on what is wrong. Anchorage is not shrinking at the rate that the number of kids is shrinking from the ASD. The oblivious parents, non-voting, are sensing turmoil in the ranks but haven’t quite figured out we have a monopoly that has gone wayward. If they think they know best for your kid’s homelife, and education then is it too much of a stretch to think that they think they know best how to spend your money!

  4. In conversations with many people across all areas of business and education many of the people that leave Alaska do so to be closer to family. Many of the young people come up to Alaska for the “Alaska experience”. They work here, do lots of outdoor activities and sight see around the state. After a few years they realize how far it is to be away from their extended family. Then they decide to move closer to home and family. That is the major factor for many of the folks leaving. In the rural areas – it is the lifestyle. That is a very difficult life and many of the people cannot adapt to it for any length of time.

  5. Your point is well taken, Bob. With the adequate funding that we already have, it shouldn’t take but a little more effort in the classrooms to get the results up from “disappointing” to “good enough,” at least to the level of being able to read and write simple sentences and count change!

  6. Additionally, many districts have a large amount of excess capacity. It’s not just the day to day operation of these facilities we have in excess of our need. It is not having the personnel to maintain, clean, and perform the daily tasks. Also, the major maintenance required to keep building that we don’t need. There was a paper written a few years ago from Tim Mearig from DEED and Nils Andreassen for Alaska Municipal League (the trough is never big enough group). It indicated that major maintenance is 3.5% of replacement value. So, for 1 million square feet (more than a few districts) of space equates to more than 17.5 million dollars annually. You see it as bonds, hand out to the state, or deferred maintenance and deterioration of the facility. Most districts need to address this to show that they are properly manage their assets before more money becomes available. The state can help with this process of helping districts make some of the space available for other public purposes.

  7. I’m pretty sure that if parents were choosing how and where to spend money for their children’s education, they’d be more interested in the outcome. It seems pretty obvious that when the money is taken out of the parent’s hands and funneled into the schools by the government, with no apparent guidelines for the outcome, you can see what we get. If the money were given to the parents, upfront, from the government either in tax savings or directly, I tend to think people would be more interested in what they were getting as a result. It might also be worth discussing why some educators are sending their children to schools outside of the traditional public school system.

    • Phil, parents assume and trust that their representatives, senators, and education leaders make the best choices on spending the funds allocated for children’s’ education. Unfortunately, they don’t. Money is not the answer to fixing our education system and our students’ low test scores. The union will tell you if we spend more on education we will close the gaps between where our students are and our goals in reading and Math. Unfortunately, it won’t. Teachers looking at the data, determining the areas of need, providing interventions and monitoring will cost us nothing more than their salaries. Parents encouraging their students and talking about the importance of a good education, and checking in with them on a regular basis helps students understand that education is an important part of their lives. Also, making sure their student is getting adequate rest and comes to school ready to learn. Finally, teacher creating a growth mindset environment where students can believe they can succeed when they come to school and the student believing they can succeed whether it is Reading, Writing or Math. It’s not an instantaneous fix but if cultivated and nurtured you will see results. Monetary costs=Nothing!

  8. Administrative bloat and lack of treating teachers as professionals are two of the huge reasons why are schools are failing our teachers and kids. The number one factor in student success is teacher retention. Number one, hands down. I taught in rural Alaska for 9 years and ultimately walked away after being accused of malicious activity toward my kids. All immensely false and never once researched. Our teachers are overworked and many principals are making three times the average teacher salary. Teachers are flying out of our classrooms for jobs that pay better while also offering a more sustainable work/life balance.

    My only recommendation to support our schools is to switch to a four day week. Allow teachers to use that 5th day how they please. To prep, plan, sleep in and go travel, whatever. Promote autonomy and trust in the workplace

  9. My daughter has been in 2 different elementary schools in ASD and I homeschooled her during the pandemic. I also volunteer at her current elementary school. I would like to know when was the last time he sat in an elementary school classroom for an entire day/week? If he hasn’t, I would love to invite him to sit in my daughter’s for a week so he could truly see what the teachers have to put up with from the majority of the children. I fully believe in having a fact-based discussion; however, until he experiences it for himself, he won’t understand why the teachers are leaving. Why would anyone be a teacher in this state without a retirement and with constant cuts and underfunding and not being able to hold students and parents accountable for their actions? The only reason is purely because they love teaching and they love the kids; otherwise, there is nothing else in it for them except a lack of support from parents, ASD leadership, the community, and a large portion of the kids, as well as, a crappy paycheck to boot without a retirement. I am also tired of the teachers having to teach to the LCD in the classroom just because of test scores. Teachers today have to spend so much time helping out the kids that are struggling that they don’t have time, resources, or the latitude to spend time to advance the kids that are the star performers. That is what happens in a system when teachers are worried about teaching to the test and not to the kids. And then we hear that Alaska wants to lower the standards from Ms. Bishop. She did a horrible job in ASD and still continues to make this worse for this state’s educational system. God help our kids because obviously our school board and education board won’t!

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