Columns 2017

Alaska Senate destroying Alaska educational system

As Anchorage lays off over two hundred teachers and you can literally hear the Alaska Senate flushing the toilet on any hope of a quality education here, I find myself thinking more and more of my father.

He was taken out of school when he was 14 to go to work. It was the Depression. His mother was already renting out rooms to borders. His dad was working full time. But it wasn’t enough. So his education was sacrificed to the family’s need for more income.

My Nona never said this was the reason. Instead, she insisted that the doctors told her my father was going blind. In actual fact, he was nearsighted. Nevertheless, he was taken out of school and sent to work as an apprentice butcher – because after all, what better profession for a young man going blind than handing him a sharp knife and telling him to have at it.

All of my father’s siblings completed high school. As the oldest, he was simply chosen as the sacrificial lamb. His work enabled them to stay in school.

This was not an unusual phenomenon in the immigrant Italian community in which he was raised. My mother was the only one in her family to go to college. The rest of the siblings worked to make sure she got that education. Given that I never thought to ask the question while they were alive, I’ll never know why one was always picked over the others for special treatment.

My dad was a butcher for the next thirty years of his life. In his forties, he went back to school to get his GED so he could get a job as a government meat inspector. I remember coming home from college one weekend to find him in his usual chair in the living room with a grin from ear to ear on his face as he studied the books in front of him. He looked up as I entered and said something to the effect of, “Can you believe your father is back in school at his age?”

Quite frankly, I couldn’t. But that was mainly because I’d grown up watching him do crossword puzzles, reading two newspapers a day and always having a book at his side. It had never occurred to me that he wasn’t a high school graduate. But here he was, a middle aged man with an almost completely grown up family, proudly getting his diploma all those many years later.

The Alaska Senate is seemingly on a trajectory that includes gutting education from pre-school through college in order to continue to feed their oil industry overlords. To say this is a shortsighted policy is to greatly underestimate just how foolish it truly is. Alaska’s future is in an educated populace. And by that, I mean educated in all areas, not just academic. We need electricians as much as we need physicists. We need plumbers as much as we need engineers. We need all these professions to keep Alaska’s economy vigorous. We need it for the continued growth of this state and also because of the inherent sense of accomplishment it provides to the people who acquire the education.

I simply don’t understand how the Alaska Senate can look at our state and not understand this. While the oil industry has been the backbone of our economy for decades, its declining importance is writ large for anyone willing to see the handwriting. Even if we start extracting more oil and selling it, for so long as the price remains so low, it will no longer be able to carry the state’s financial needs as a solo entity. And given the rapidity with which the rest of the world is turning to alternative sources of power, we may soon find ourselves depending on an industry that is slowly but surely becoming the coal industry of the 21st century.

We need to diversify our economy and to do that we need an educated populace that is capable of working in areas other than the oil fields and their supporting industries. We need our children to be educated into the new world, the new economy. If we cut education to the bone or deeper here in Alaska, they will go elsewhere for that education. And you know that old saying, “How you gonna keep them down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree”.

If they leave Alaska for their education, there’s a good chance they’ll never return. We are sacrificing our greatest asset in order to prop up a dying one. That makes no sense at all.