ASD offers many options to its families. These range from schools-within-a school, to language immersion programs, to optional, alternative, and charter schools. Because the range is so broad, the varied approaches allow differentiated learning to take place at a structural level. ASD’s options, in theory, permit any child to attend a school of choice regardless of zip code.
To terminate these programs in favor of total standardization across every ASD school—to allow the weaponization of test scores, combined with calls for fiscal austerity, to forcibly create a back-to-basics-only approach to learning everywhere, for every child—would throw the baby out with the bathwater. If we homogenize our schools and eliminate important programs, students will lose opportunities to learn in novel ways, teachers will lose opportunities to implement what decades of research in areas like SEL reveal (ie that the systematic integration of social-emotional learning throughout the school day actually deepens academic understanding and amplifies the skills that employers value the most), and the move to drill-and-kill conformity might drive many families away from the district, leaving ASD as a less-communal shell of itself.
However, we need to be aware that there are significant barriers that dissuade or prohibit every interested student from enrolling in one of ASD’s lottery-based programs. These appear to include the relay of basic information about ASD’s special programs, transportation to and from their sites, and the food services, and/or available supports for English language learners or Special Education students that are, or are not, available. So I’m encouraged by the new Board Guardrail which instructs the Superintendent to not leave any demographic underrepresented in ASD’s schools of choice, and I look forward to seeing the administration pave a smoother path for all students to explore ASD’s options.
Now, as to the question of funding all of ASD’s programs: I think that we need to talk about the funding ASD receives from the legislature. This February, thanks to Federal funds allocated to meet COVID-related needs, ASD did not have to prepare a budget for FY 21-22 that reflects its true shortfalls. We didn’t have to ask for millions of dollars in supplemental funds, or figure out which cuts would hurt kids the least (health instruction? IGNITE? Safety? Class sizes?). Yes, the cost of delivering education is expensive in Alaska, including Anchorage. And yes, taxpayers certainly deserve to know that their funds are being stewarded wisely! But Anchorage needs to understand that its schools are being asked to deal with large numbers of children who are fundamentally under-prepared to enter the K-12 system. Only 18% of ASD’s entering Kindergartners were measured as “ready” to do so in 2020, according to DEED. Part of this reflects the fact that many families can’t afford or can’t find openings in private or public preschool programs here in town. In fact, 23% of Anchorage households with kids between 0-5 put them in unlicensed care facilities, and another 18% of those households are unable to find even that. We have hundreds of children on preschool waitlists. Moreover, ASD is tasked with educating large numbers of children who are entering school with high rates of poverty, language barriers, adverse childhood experiences (trauma, abuse, neglect, chronic stress), and/or who need Individualized Education Plans. Dealing with these social issues is expensive and requires trained personnel. ASD has yet to be able to adequately fund the evidence-based pupil: teacher ratios (less than 15 students at the K-3 level) that we know will measurably improve student reading outcomes, and is unable to provide SPED and ELL programs the resources, staffing, and professional development they truly need to meet kids’ needs. It’s time for the Legislature to adjust the Base Student Allocation—which it has not done at levels needed to meet inflation since 2010—as a first step, and to consider making an adjustment to ASD’s “Cost Factor,” as well.