Why Alaska's 2018 Teacher of the Year says there's no incentive to stay

2018 Alaska State Teacher of the Year Ben Walker says he's uncertain if he'll remain in-state...
2018 Alaska State Teacher of the Year Ben Walker says he's uncertain if he'll remain in-state to teach. (KTUU) (KTUU)
Published: Sep. 29, 2019 at 6:24 PM AKDT
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Some Alaska educators are evaluating whether they want to continue teaching in-state following this year's budgetary showdown -- others have already left.

Adjusted for inflation, state aid to public schools decreased by over $80 million between FY 2017 and FY 2019, according to data from the Department of Education and Early Development. Teachers like Ben Walker, Alaska's 2018 Teacher of the Year, see this shrinking investment in public education as a lack of incentive to stay.

"I have a seven and a nine year-old, and I don't want them to be in an education system that's like that," Walker said, "and frankly, they don't have to be."

Walker has taught science classes at Romig Middle School in Anchorage for 14 years. He's what some would call an "all-star" teacher.

The state has already lost some of its all-star teachers to the Lower 48, according to Tim Parker, president of the National Education Association of Alaska.

"It breaks my heart to see these great teachers leave, because they're almost impossible to replace," Parker said. "It really has an impact on students."

Parker says one of these educators was Alaska's 2017 Teacher of the Year, James Harris of Soldotna High School.

Harris addressed the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District's Board of Education in early April, shortly after tendering his resignation. He said he hoped the district would improve retention of young teachers by providing access to better retirement plans. This is a concern echoing across the state.

Alaska's Board of Education recently said the state is in a turnover crisis, hiring 1,000 teachers per year. Walker says young teachers new to Alaska do not have access to Social Security to help build their retirement. Instead, they have a matched contribution plan -- basically a savings account that Walker says they can walk away with after a certain number of years. He says this is a primary factor in the state's high teacher turnover rate, and one of the reasons he is considering leaving the state.

"I can move at any time. People think, 'Well, teachers don't have these sort of thoughts,' but we do," Walker said. "We're also parents. We're also just members of society who want the best for our children... and cutting isn't getting us there."

Walker is referring to Governor Dunleavy's line-item vetoes to public education, which have since been significantly restored. However, Walker remains unconvinced that similar cuts won't fall in the next budgeting cycle. The State Legislature tried to avoid this uncertainty when it pre-funded public education for FY 2019 -- it's currently embroiled in a lawsuit with the Dunleavy Administration on the constitutionality of appropriating future funds.

Walker says teachers are tired of the constant back-and-forth between Alaska's governors and lawmakers during each new budgetary process. He says teachers are always biting their nails, hoping a budget will be signed and money allocated for public education before pink slips are required to be sent out. This annual uncertainty of state funding creates angst, inevitably leaving teachers teetering on the edge of a job search.

Walker hopes this cycle will change, because both he and his wife Catherine Walker (also an award-winning teacher of biology and engineering at Dimond High School) want to stay in-state.

"Really, there is no reason to stay in Alaska," he said. "I love Alaska. I grew up in Ketchikan. I love being here, and I love having my kids here. But really, other than just liking the state, there's really no incentive to stay."

Gov. Dunleavy maintains that difficult but necessary decisions must be made to run the state more efficiently. Looking at education, spokesperson Matt Shuckerow says the governor is focused on cost-effective results and improving Alaska's PEAKS Assessment scores, which came back low for 2019.

"Spending more money doesn't necessarily equal better outcomes, and that is something that we've seen with our performance in annual testing," Shuckerow said. "So these are areas that the governor and the commissioner of education would like to see improvements on."

Walker, and many other educators, have said that PEAKS Assessment scores are not a be-all-end-all reflection of student success.

While the Dunleavy Administration and the State Legislature settle a lawsuit over forward-funding education, Shuckerow says the governor has advocated for fully funding the Base Student Allocation. He says this would provide more stability for school districts to plan their annual budgets, and for teachers to plan for a steady paycheck.

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