A recent opinion piece on a local radio station’s website made the oft heard claim that our country’s public school system is failing. The comments were broad, without citation and stated that all improvement attempts have failed. And while there is no doubt that there is room for improvement in all schools both private and public, there should be little confusion as to whether such a generalization includes our public schools on the Kenai. Anyone who has followed the district’s progress will note that more of our students graduate on time, academically perform better, have more career training opportunities and are more likely to be steered to an appropriate next step after high school than ever before. Our elementary schools are teaching children to read at a faster rate and have a much better ability to identify and remediate students who are behind. On the operational side, our processes, including how we respond to student safety challenges, are improved. In sum, our schools and school district are better than they were; they are not failing.
The author devotes much of his comments to the idea that vouchers will magically save public education. The basic logic of this argument is that humans, given choice, will make the best possible decision. And while that may hold true for buying a quart of milk, it has not showed to be true for children living in poverty here on the Kenai. Our schools of choice (charter schools) are some of the highest performing elementary schools in the state. Yet, they also have the lowest rates of poverty for our district. Our parents who are poor are not lining up to enroll their children in the local charters. There is thus, little reason to believe that a voucher system would do the same. In sum, I fear that vouchers would instead concentrate children living in poverty and not as is suggested, level the playing field.
The author’s complaint that public schools are too expensive by association suggests that the Kenai’s residents are gouged by tax payments for schools. This is also without merit. With the state using oil taxes to pay for about 2/3rds of our school district’s expenses, it is clear that local residents do not have to foot that much of the school bill. As a way to illustrate this, the local amount of property tax that goes to our schools from a tax payment on a residential property that is assessed at $250,000, is about $420 per year. Or, about $1.20 per day. The borough sales tax that goes to schools is so heavily dependent on tourist revenue that residents should smile and not sigh when in July, they see a jam-packed Fred Meyer parking lot full of cars owned by people who do not live here.
Finally, it is easy to take shots at public education without looking close to home. Such polarizing rhetoric of failing schools must also include a review of our local education picture. When you do this, you find a picture that is not dim. Rather, it is bright and getting brighter.