Dunleavy’s budget proposal is a crisis in education

Those who have been paying attention to Gov. Dunleavy’s record on education knew his budget proposal would be rough. I’ve written quite critically about his misplaced priorities on education and made his hostility towards UAA a key component of my vehement opposition to his governorship. But when Dunleavy officially announced his proposed budget on Wednesday, there was no one who could have prepared me for this.

As proposed, Dunleavy’s budget advocates for a 40 percent reduction in the UA System’s current $327 million budget, which equates to a reduction of $134 million. This would be the single largest reduction in the university budget in its 100-year history, well-surpassing cuts under the Walker administration —  even when the budget deficit was over $4 billion, compared to the current deficit of $1.6 billion.

The effect of these cuts would be absolutely devastating. We’ve all experienced the consequences of the first round of cuts a few years ago: tuition hikes, disappearing departments and reductions in essential services.

Dunleavy’s cuts, however, would change everything. President of the UA system Jim Johnsen says the cuts would “devastate” the university, leading to campus closures, tuition hikes and layoffs of around 1,300 faculty and staff.  

Without a doubt, campus closures would come at the cost of rural areas with little access to higher education. Services we all use won’t just be cut; they’ll be completely eliminated. Programs that don’t produce much tangible financial value will be the first on the chopping block. Scholarships, vital research opportunities and more will be stripped.

Think that’s bad enough? Dunleavy had no problem taking an ax to public K-12 education, either. K-12 is looking at a $320 million reduction, a huge reduction in state education spending. In a field with already high turnover due to burnout, the quality of education in Alaska will undoubtedly suffer and schools will be forced to stuff more kids in classes.

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Some may say this is an exaggeration because it’s only the proposed budget. It’s true: the legislature must vote on a budget, and would likely make substantial changes. With news that the Democrats have formed a majority coalition, the House is unlikely to let cuts this large through.

In most circumstances, that’d be enough to calm my nerves. However, the governor’s budget proposal is more than a reflection of financial priorities. It’s also a statement about what the administration values, and signals the kind of steps it’s willing to take to make room for other initiatives.

To teachers all over the state, it says to them: you are not a vital profession in the state. It sends a clear message that public education is a privilege, and is non-essential to the success of Alaska.

Assuming the budget never passes, teachers on the verge of retirement or moving out of state for a better paying position now have an incredibly simple cost-benefit analysis to make: the cost of staying and fighting this administration’s attempt to gut education at every turn now exceeds the benefits of teaching.

Will educators endure a few years of getting kicked around by the Dunleavy administration just to watch public education wither away? Will they stand by helplessly as their years of work are blown away reckless budget after budget? Don’t count on it.

What’s the consequence of teacher flight? The loss of institutional memory. Treasured teaching practices and university know-how all goes down the drain. Relationships between educators and institutions will be lost.

The same goes for teachers or professors even thinking about coming to Alaska to teach. If the UAA accreditation issue wasn’t reasoning enough to distrust UA’s reputation, educators now may fear they’re walking into a building whose pillars may collapse at any given moment.

The best way to lead a state into prosperity is to keep places that produce its leaders intact. Those who get an education here are more likely to stick around and apply their knowledge to the communities closest to them. Driving up education costs and killing its quality is a great way to push them out of state.

The temptation to solve a budget crisis by cutting an already-gutted budget neglects the real Alaskans that will suffer. For now, they will be teachers and students. Following them will be the generations that suffer from an education system that got left behind.

Views expressed in the opinion section do not reflect the views of The Northern Light.