A quality education puts students on the path to self-sufficiency. It teaches critical thinking skills, the knowledge necessary to be productive members of society, and the ability to translate imagination into innovation. A quality educational system links pre-school, K through 12, vocational training, and university.

We can do better.

As the parents of two public school students, Mara and I know how important it is that all Alaskan children get a good education in a safe, healthy learning environment. Like you, we also know that as a state, we can do better in making sure that Alaska’s students have access to the quality education that is a key to success in today’s world. Alaska ranks 42nd in graduation rates – 40 percent of our children don’t graduate high school and it’s 60 percent in our rural communities. There are real people behind that sobering statistic, and real consequences to educational failure. It’s time to do something about it.

We need to reach beyond “standardization” as a public policy.

A good education means teaching our children how to think critically, to solve problems and develop the skills they need to get a good job. I have never met a standardized kid, or been to a standardized school or a standardized district. We are a state that prizes individuality — accepting an educational system based on standardization and conformity just does not reflect our values. When my own children are in the classroom, I want their teachers to know them for who they are and teach them for what they can be.

We have a bright future if we do things right.

These next years can be a turning point for Alaska education. We can have accountability without sacrificing education – schools exist to teach, not to test. Accountability is important if it leads to better teaching, but it is dangerous when the focus and funding shifts primarily from teaching to testing. By setting high standards and delivering an education that our students want and the state needs, we can make sure the next generation has the skills and education it needs to succeed. When our school system is working the way it should, we prove the wisdom in the words that “Education is about lighting a fire, not filling a bucket.”

Here are priorities that can make a difference:

Early Childhood Education

The path to success starts early, in pre-school. If we catch our kids young, when brain development is at its most receptive, we can break the cycle of low test scores, of students being left behind, and of unacceptably high dropout rates. When children enter elementary school better prepared, they are able to learn from the very first day – which translates to greater achievement and greater satisfaction.

Alaska is one of 10 states that do not support pre-Kindergarten education. Only 19 percent of Alaskan 3-4 year olds attend public pre-schools. Pre-school education can be an effective tool in reducing the gaps in educational achievement among Alaska’s students. In addition, studies show that high quality pre-Kindergarten education can have many positive social results, including reduced rates of teen pregnancy, better health, lower drug use rates, reduced criminal activity and increasing lifetime earnings.

That’s why as your Governor, it will be a priority to expand access to and quality of early childhood education programs.

K – 12 Education:
Value Quality Education and Decrease High Drop-Out Rates

The impacts of Alaska’s low graduation rates ripple through our economy: Alaskans who don’t graduate from high school earn one-third less than those who do.

Adopting commonsense policies and practices make a difference from kindergarten through high school. First, class size matters.Too many kids in a classroom compromises the quality of education. That’s why recruiting and retaining the most qualified teachers is a cornerstone for quality education. Third, safe schools are an absolute requirement. It isn’t fair to expect kids to learn and teachers to teach when their physical safety is jeopardized, whether because of crime or because the buildings themselves are run down and unsafe.

Innovation and commitment to education abound in Alaska. Charter schools, immersion programs, and a variety of choice for study provide opportunities for students to match their talents to their educational choices. We must make sure this innovation extends to extracurricular and in-school activities. Extracurricular activities – from arts to sports and clubs of all kinds – provide educational enrichment and foster social skills. They provide an outlet for student energy and help develop positive character traits like perseverance, discipline and teamwork. Studies also show that expanding career and technical educational opportunities for high school students keep more Alaska students in school and prepare them for jobs after graduation. And let’s be receptive and responsive to studies that show performance drops off when high school starts too early in the morning.

Finally, it bears repeating that the standardization inherent in “No Child Left Behind” offends the basic notion that we develop individual potential by teaching students as individuals. It insults the principle of local control – that communities and parents know better than Washington how to educate our own kids. And it is yet another unfunded federal mandate. I have always stood for reforms that focus on teaching, not testing, and that respect local control over education policy.

Post-Secondary Education: Strengthen Opportunities for Vocational Education and Skills Training

Vocational training opportunities are integral to Alaska’s economic future and to the opportunities we afford our people. Workforce development has a major impact on the economy and on the ability of Alaskans to get good jobs. Where will the replacements come from to fill jobs being vacated by Alaska’s aging oil field workers? We can answer that question – and similar questions for every skill and industry – if we train today’s students for tomorrow’s jobs. It is enough that we export our resources — we should not have to import our work force. Expanded training programs and expanded training opportunities will lead to more and better jobs for Alaskans.

Post-Secondary Education: A Vital and Vibrant University

Alaska's university system should deliver answers for Alaska's issues, cutting-edge research for the world's questions, and quality education for students. We are America’s only Arctic state and the University of Alaska should be a premier institution for Arctic research and policy – from climate change to geopolitics to energy to fisheries to marine transportation. We have a unique way of life and Alaska’s university should lead the way in studies of our peoples and our cultures and traditions. The University of Alaska has an important role to play in answering questions about our distinct and unmet needs, from food security to teaching to medical training. If we do not seek these answers ourselves, if we do not provide this education ourselves, we put our fate in the hands of others and risk a “brain drain” as young Alaskans seek their education elsewhere. The road to a self-reliant Alaskan future requires a strong state commitment to our university system.

It is also important to acknowledge that tuition hikes puts college out of reach for many Alaskans. I will work with the State Legislature and the University of Alaska system to expand the UA scholars program and need-based scholarships. Finally, I will amend the Governor's Performance Scholarship so that it does not discriminate against rural students and students who attend smaller schools with fewer offered courses, or school districts—such as Anchorage—with graduation requirements out of line with the current criteria.