May 16, 2019 | ADN Opinion |
For the past several years, as we have pursued undergraduate and graduate education at institutions in the Lower 48, we’ve proudly told our new friends about our home state, Alaska. 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 played a part in our childhoods as educators and through their incredible community-building efforts in both Anchorage and Ketchikan. We are proud products of Alaska public schools. And that is why we are concerned about how our state’s electorate is jeopardizing future generations of young Alaskans’ access to the quality of public education we recently enjoyed.
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 were selected as Alaska’s delegates to the U.S. Senate Youth Program, an immersive government education experience in Washington, D.C. I (Thomas) only heard of this scholarship opportunity because an Anchorage School District guidance counselor hunted me down and told me excitedly that “this seems perfect for you.” 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 counselor who helped me apply lost her job due to budget cuts. Sadly, this was only one of many times we witnessed the cruel insecurity we ask many of our educators, and students by extension, to endure each year.
My (Kiera’s) parents first came to Alaska when my father accepted a middle-school teaching position in 1993. Since then, my sisters and I 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 Alaska’s public school system. In middle school, my Algebra 1 textbook was falling apart, but my teacher took the time to teach me how to program my Ti-84 calculator. These extra efforts impacted 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 gave me the confidence to apply to Ivy League schools I had never dreamed would be within reach.
Students benefit immensely when we are surrounded and known by a stable cohort of community-rooted teachers. They shouldn’t have to, but these high-quality, committed educators overcome many budget deficiencies. When we needed letters of recommendation and other forms of academic support we were able to call upon teachers who knew us well. Thus, 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.
We are also concerned about students like us who themselves decide to leave Alaska to pursue opportunities elsewhere. Losing confidence in the educational system will affect students’ decisions to return home. We all wonder: what does it say about our home state 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 in the state Legislature? Our generation’s perception of the Alaska’s trajectory raises the question: Will the public education and related economic benefits we enjoyed be available to our future children if we return?
Investing in Alaska’s teachers and students isn’t a partisan issue. We should all be concerned about balancing the budget, and the unwillingness to fund education adequately isn’t a deficiency unique to the Dunleavy administration. We sincerely hope to see Alaska Democrats, Independents and Republicans like Sen. Mia Costello, who has been advocating for an early education funding constitutional amendment, join to ensure that we retain our best and most committed teachers.
Our perspective on this issue is absolutely shaped by our age. We haven’t forgotten the invaluable impact our teachers had on us 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.