Dave Donley: Pandemic increased the burden on public schools already overwhelmed by mission drift



America’s founding fathers knew that our nation’s democratic-republic form of government requires educated citizens to be successful.  I strongly support parental educational choice, but a strong successful public school system is also essential to maintaining an educated public and has been the foundation of America’s greatness.  

I ran for the Anchorage School Board to do all I can to continue our American tradition of great public schools that is so necessary for our country, state, and community to succeed.  

For two years public schools have been the front line in our community response to the Covid pandemic. Congress has sent close to $200 billion to schools to pay for their Covid-19 response. This has continued the trend of Americans asking our public schools to do more than they are typically funded or trained to do. Multiple bills before the Alaska Legislature this year proposed to add more duties to school districts. As the merits of these and other new proposals are considered it is important to reflect on the history of public education in America. Clearly, testing indicates Anchorage schools must do better for our students to ensure they can read, write, and do math.

Anchorage School District Deputy Commissioner Dr. Mark Stock has called the School Board’s attention to author and public-school advocate Jamie Vollmer’s analysis of the increasing burden on public schools.  

Vollmer traces public schools in America back to 1640 when schools were established in Massachusetts to teach reading, writing, math and very importantly values that serve a democratic society. 

Vollmer points out that the founders of these schools “assumed that families and churches bore the major responsibility for raising a child.” Schools had a limited role. Over time, science and geography became standard additional curriculum, but for almost 260 years the duties of public schools remained limited and focused.

As immigration increased at the beginning of the twentieth century, schools assumed an important role in the assimilation of immigrants.  Public schools became responsible for social engineering of the citizens and workers of the new industrial age. Curriculum and duties began to expand greatly.

Vollmer lists these new school duties chronologically as including:

From 1900 to 1910:

•           Nutrition 

•           Immunization 

•           Health (Activities in the health arena multiply every year.)

From 1910 to 1930: 

•           Physical education (including organized athletics) 

•           The Practical Arts/Domestic Science/Home economics (including sewing and cooking) 

•           Vocational education (including industrial and agricultural education) 

•           Mandated school transportation

In the 1940s: 

•           Business education (including typing, shorthand, and bookkeeping) 

•           Art and music 

•           Speech and drama 

•           Half-day kindergarten

•           School lunch programs (We take this for granted today, but it was a huge step to shift to the schools the job of feeding America’s children one third of their daily meals.)

In the 1950s: 

•           Expanded science and math education 

•           Safety education 

•           Driver’s education 

•           Expanded music and art education 

•           Stronger foreign language requirements 

•           Sex education (Topics continue to escalate.)

In the 1960s: 

•           Advanced Placement programs 

•           Head Start 

•           Title I 

•           Adult education 

•           Consumer education (purchasing resources, rights and responsibilities) 

•           Career education (occupational options, entry level skill requirements) 

•           Peace, leisure, and recreation education [Loved those sixties.]

In the 1970s, the breakup of the American family accelerated, and we added:

•           Drug and alcohol abuse education 

•           Parenting education (techniques and tools for healthy parenting) 

•           Behavior adjustment classes (including classroom and communication skills) 

•           Character education 

•           Special education (mandated by federal government) 

•           Title IX programs (greatly expanded athletic programs for girls) 

•           Environmental education 

•           Women’s studies 

•           African-American heritage education 

•           School breakfast programs (Now some schools feed America’s children two-thirds of their daily meals through-out the school year and all summer. Sadly, these are the only decent meals some children receive.)

In the 1980s, schools added:

•           Keyboarding and computer education 

•           Global education 

•           Multicultural/Ethnic education 

•           Nonsexist education 

•           English-as-a-second-language and bilingual education 

•           Teen pregnancy awareness 

•           Hispanic heritage education 

•           Early childhood education 

•           Jump Start, Early Start, Even Start, and Prime Start 

•           Full-day kindergarten

•           Preschool programs for children at risk 

•           After-school programs for children of working parents 

•           Alternative education in all its forms 

•           Stranger/danger education 

•           Antismoking education

•           Sexual abuse prevention education 

•           Expanded health and psychological services 

•           Child abuse monitoring (a legal requirement for all teachers)

In the 1990s:

•           Conflict resolution and peer mediation 

•           HIV/AIDS education 

•           CPR training 

•           Death education 

•           America 2000 initiatives (Republican) 

•           Inclusion 

•           Expanded computer and internet education 

•           Distance learning 

•           Tech Prep and School to Work programs 

•           Technical Adequacy 

•           Assessment 

•           Post-secondary enrollment options 

•           Concurrent enrollment options 

•           Goals 2000 initiatives (Democrat) 

•           Expanded Talented and Gifted opportunities 

•           At risk and dropout prevention 

•           Homeless education (including causes and effects on children) 

•           Gang education (urban centers) 

•           Service learning 

•           Bus safety, bicycle safety, gun safety, and water safety education

The first decade of the 21st Century: 

•           No Child Left Behind (Republican) 

•           Bully prevention 

•           Anti-harassment policies (gender, race, religion, or national origin) 

•           Expanded early childcare and wrap around programs 

•           Elevator and escalator safety instruction 

•           Body Mass Index evaluation (obesity monitoring) 

•           Organ donor education and awareness programs 

•           Personal financial literacy 

•           Entrepreneurial and innovation skills development 

•           Media literacy development 

•           Contextual learning skill development 

•           Health and wellness programs 

•           Race to the Top (Democrat)

The full list in poster form can be purchased from Vollmer, who can be invited to speak through his website, www.jamievollmer.com.  Vollmer has a consulting service for school districts nationally. Vollmer explains this list does not include the addition of multiple, specialized topics within each of the traditional subjects. It also does not include the explosion of standardized testing and test prep activities, and new reporting requirements imposed by the federal government. 

The vast majority of these requirements on schools are federal mandates and proposals have been put forth in Congress to allow more local control through block grant funding. However, in the second decade of the 21st Century the mandate trend has continued. School mandates have expanded to include increased preschool operations, more career-technical offerings, increased wi-fi in schools, more gender-inclusive facilities, more mental health services, and more IT support.

Some Anchorage schools now have on-site health clinics. Programs to support new immigrants and increase “equity” are being mandated by federal law. And new unfunded mandates continue to come from the State Legislature. Our public schools have become the front line in our community response to the Covid-19 pandemic; the past two summers Anchorage school cafeterias stayed open and provided thousands of free meals.

Vollmer points out that all this has been added to the responsibility of our schools “without adding a single minute to the school calendar in six decades” and that schools are now mandated to “not just teach children but raise them!”  This is especially a problem in Alaska, where our state law provides for the shortest school year combined with the shortest minimum school day in the nation.  

In a previous article, I explained how this state law combination results in our Alaskan students receiving possibly a year and a half less actual instruction time than students in some other states during their K–12 education. I believe this is part of the reason for the poor testing results of Alaskan students.

Anchorage class sizes have unfortunately grown as the ASD struggles with these ever-increasing duties, flat funding, and labor cost pressures. The School Board has prioritized the lower grades to keep teacher/student ratios in them lower, but they still are far above recommended sizes. It will be very difficult to maintain even the existing class sizes in coming years as federal Covid impact funds dry up.  The 2023-24 school year budget is projected to have a $40 million shortfall, increasing in 2024-25 to almost $70 million. That is one of many reasons I voted against the expensive new teacher union contract this year.

In an effort to stay focused on education, the Anchorage School Board has adopted three top priorities including: reading proficiency; math proficiency; and college and life preparedness with regular progress reporting. The goal of this third priority is to work with parents to graduate good citizens prepared for life on their own. These priorities are consistent with the three original goals of schools in America. Importantly, the School Board is mandating the Superintendent to provide regular progress reports on meeting these goals.

Again, I fully support parental school choice to encourage competition in the education marketplace and give parents more options. The Anchorage School District has lost thousands of students to other educational options over the past five years. As our community deals with justifiable frustration with public schools, I hope we can have compassion for the people who keep schools running, and for the students they’re struggling to serve while constantly being asked to do more. Perhaps most important, we need policies constructed with a full understanding of the all-encompassing role schools have been asked to play in our society. I believe our goal should be to put students first and to do so we must fully consider the impacts of adding new duties to our schools.

Jamie Vollmer gave permission to include his writings in this article. His website is: [email protected].

This communication is from Dave Donley as an individual member of the Anchorage School Board and parent; and does not represent the position of the Anchorage School Board or the Anchorage School District. Dave Donley is a life-long resident of Anchorage, parent of teenage twins, attorney, and served as a State Representative and Senator for 16 years.


  1. I can cut your workload some. Ditch”equity” and Marxist indocrinartion . lose the “America is bad, mmmmkay” part of the curriculum

  2. Given that a student has a finite amount of time in his or her day, and factoring in all the distractions that are now taught as mandatory subjects, it is no wonder that American kids graduate from high school in a barely literate state.

  3. From the opening sentence of this article really makes me cringe. Our Country was not founded on being a democratic-republic form of government, it was founded on a representative republic. Our Founding Fathers distrusted a direct democracy because they equated it to mob rule.
    Instead of wanting schools to teach conformity and control, all that needs to be taught by them is the basic reading, writing and arithmetic. Anything else should be an elective/individual choice not a collective agenda.

    • I agree that the first paragraph is cringe worthy. Our “Representative Republic” or our “Constitutional Republic”, as I was taught, doesn’t have one word regarding education.
      What has defined our great nation, made us exceptional, is that we are a nation of laws. Our unleashing of the gifts, rights, that God gives Man has propelled us so far so fast. These gifts are being clawed back by tyrants and demigods bit by bit.
      That we peacefully allow it to happen is a testament to the abject failure of our public schools.

  4. Dave Donley is not only the sharpest tool in the School District, he also has the most education. A common sense man with a common sense agenda. Thank you for serving our children, Mr. Donley.

  5. Mr. Donley,

    With 4 kids beat up by the ASD covid policy I can fully understand why 100s of kids have left the district.

    Decisions over the last 2years haven’t been easy but I hope you take a more decisive stand to bring science based discussion and debate to the next twist in pandemic related policy. The board shutdown of parents and science opposed to the dominant paradigm resulted in locking kids out of in-person education for over a year. Many other states and all Anchorage private schools did it differently. The results have been devastating for ASD students and families. You were supportive of this ASD lockout decision and you and other good board members should apologize.

    You could restore some public trust by asking the board to issue a public apology to children and parents.

    You could also restore some trust by disseminating information by the FDA vaccine safety advisory panel about child covid vaccines (ie. ONLY immunocompromised kids need a vaccine, vaccinations don’t prevent infections, most kids are at low risk, there’s high vaccine myocarditis risk for teen boys, and most kids have natural immunity by now). Promise that covid vaccines will never be required for any child to participate in any district activities and children will never be discriminated against in any way based on covid vaccination status. My kids have been discriminated on the basis of covid vaccine status and it’s not science based. It’s absolutely maddening and unecessarily devisive.

    There are still board members who think vaccines should be mandatory for healthy low risk kids. If related policies were to be implemented, ASD will lose hundreds more students.

    • El
      Sorry, you do not think I have been doing enough on some of these issues. I am trying but the fact is I am the only Republican on a seven-member board. I pushed and voted against mask mandates with no support from other members for months. I raised objections to the erroneous matrix ASD used to close down schools and was proven correct when it was exposed as being designed for nursing homes and not schools. I raised objections to the ridiculous one hour a day of direct virtual instruction minimum for teachers for only four days a week. I have raised objection to the lack of accurate medical warnings about the vaccinne. I have consistently fought against Critical Race Theory in the school district. I was the only vote against the new “equity” policy. I vote by myself on key issues all the time. And when ASD finally did open schools, I was one of only four votes out of seven to do so. I have been a very strong voice for common sense and accountability but I am only one of seven members. I am going to keep doing my best for our students and families and speaking out for what I believe.

  6. No wonder todays school’s (including private schools) are more social enrichment centers than an education. In our generation, we are going to need to travel time back to 1880, cut all the added social and stick to their basics: english, math, science, penmanship, American history, God, and tea parties and social hospitality social grace service for the private school kids.

  7. NYC has had experience with huge influx of students with limited English skills. This catch up will be real if Alaska gets it “projected” share of recent arrivals through Jiden/UN population movement policies. The perhaps two hundred thousand white and black employed Alaskans. Natives are willing to work but they are not allowed social discrimination. NYC had separate school systems available for those without language competencies.

  8. Kerry nailed it. And to claim our greatness was a result of public education is also incorrect. Compulsory public education didn’t come to our nation until the 1800s, and our Founding Fathers certainly were not educated in state-run schools. Quite the opposite. The reference to the first “public” school in Massachusetts is also misleading. The Puritans who settled in Massachusetts (not to be confused with the Pilgrims of 1620 who were Separatists) believed that education was paramount to colonial success provided that education was for the purposes of learning to read the Bible and the local laws. The Puritans believed that church and state should be intertwined, with little to no separation. Those early “public” schools of Massachusetts were not free to the students nor open to just anyone. Those first laws that established those schools in Massachusetts brought on other problems that the colony tried to “fix” through additional legislation, which were quite opposite to the philosophy of self-government that our nation is founded upon. This cycle of response to “fix” primary and secondary schools hasn’t changed.

    Why were private schools so successful during COVID? They each are self-governed and the best examples of “local control” that so many public education advocates decry as necessary but in reality, don’t want. With so much federal funding coming to our local public schools, and with that funding there are always strings and requirements, there can never truly be local control. Until the school districts and the state understand the purse dynamic, changing the academic calendar year or changing the tests or changing the curriculum will not change anything.

  9. The business of Education has nothing to do with educating. It’s about self promotion and self perpetuation.

  10. My perspective on Alaska education is simple. First and most important, Alaska education is about our children’s future. It is not about anything else. Thomas Sowell reports in Charter Schools and Their Enemies that “the late Albert Shanker, head of the United Federation of Teachers, was honest enough to state the plain fact: ‘When schoolchildren start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of schoolchildren.’”

    Parents must be the administer the funds for and the operation of their children’s education.

    Alaska government education must be totally reformed so competition is balanced and equitable across the education strata to include private and religious educational institutions.

    When competitive education is finally implemented, Alaska will see a literate and capable citizenry.

    • Technically, we already have school choice that includes private and religious schools. Statewide correspondence schools (ex. Raven) allow full-time enrollment in their program and full-time enrollment at local private, religious schools. Allotment funds offset tuition and or can be used for additional courses and classes not offered at the private school.

  11. Spare us the worn-out pandemic excuses, Dave.
    Before the China flu panic, Anchorage School District achieved national recognition as being among America’s most expensive, worst-performing.
    On your watch, Dave, that happened.
    Yet other school districts, notably the many ranked above ASD, don’t seem to have this problem.
    Some of those successful districts aren’t even woke, they never forced children to wear masks or anyone to be injected with experimental chemicals.
    Not sure what your support’s worth if your priority’s rewarding union friends with inflated school-district contracts pushed to union shops only.
    That’s “putting students first”?
    As long as Anchorage voters are stuck with an easily corruptible mail-in voting scheme, your lot can do and spend what you want because you’re accountable to no one… and it’s pretty obvious you know it.
    Respectfully suggest losing the excuses, politics, wokeness, and moronic corporate-speak, just be grateful no law fits what your mob do, and have done, to generations of Anchorage schoolchildren …and their parents… and Anchorage’s taxpayers.

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