In late June, Gov. Mike Dunleavy vetoed half of a $175 million increase in one-time funds to Alaska’s schools, by far the largest of his line-item vetoes in signing Alaska’s operating budget for this year. It was a strange move, and not just because a clear majority of legislators along the political spectrum agreed our state’s school funding is negatively affecting educational outcomes. What has made the governor’s veto particularly odd — and even more so as time has passed since — is his steadfast refusal to explain to Alaskans why it is helpful or necessary. The only hint of an explanation offered by his spokesperson was that Dunleavy “recognizes that schools need to address inflationary pressures while still preserving general fund dollars,” a rationale that holds very little water given the governor’s signing of some of the largest budgets Alaska has seen, bloated by unsustainable Permanent Fund dividend draws that have left the state’s last major accessible savings account in danger of being drained in just a few years.
Much of the time in this year’s legislative session that wasn’t consumed by the operating budget and Permanent Fund dividend negotiations focused on school funding and teacher retention, two areas where most legislators agreed that a decade-long pause in increases to formula funding had contributed to Alaska’s struggles in meeting national education standards. “We know we’ve short-funded education for more than a decade, and it needed to be caught up with inflation,” said Senate Majority Leader Cathy Giessel, a budget-minded Republican and no bleeding heart when it comes to budget priorities. Indeed, much of the debate over education funding wasn’t whether an increase was necessary, but how big it needed to be. After the Senate passed a substantial increase to formula funding, the House countered with a lower amount and made it a one-time funding increase. But both sides agreed that an amount far greater than the one Dunleavy signed into law was warranted.
It’s worth noting that the governor’s career history includes a substantial stretch working in Alaska’s public schools, so it’s not as though Dunleavy is unaware of the effect his slashing school funding will have. In fact, he had his own bill promoting salary incentives for teachers, so it’s clear he is at some level philosophically aligned with legislators and community members who say more must be done to attract and keep quality teachers. But his funding cuts will have the opposite effect.
Given that reality, the conclusion it seems most reasonable to draw is that the governor is using his veto pen as a punitive measure because of an inability to effect the change he wishes to bring about in Alaska’s schools, much as he made cuts to Alaska’s courts for their rulings that Alaska’s constitution protects the right to abortion access. It’s a somewhat bizarre parallel to the far-left “defund the police” push that circulated in the wake of George Floyd’s killing in the summer of 2020: Because of an inability to change policy within a powerful societal institution, the oppositional fringe took the tack of seeking to kneecap the institution altogether, regardless of the collateral damage that might result.
For the “defund the police” agitators, the outcome was the reverse of their desire — most people were alienated by the radical change they pushed for. The same may prove true for Dunleavy’s use of his veto as a weapon. Most Alaskans, regardless of their view on individual education issues such as teacher salaries, school choice, vouchers or administrative overhead, want a school system that works and that will provide their children with the opportunities they need to build a better life. The governor’s veto is substantial enough, and schools’ financial state precarious enough, that it will be impossible to keep its effects from showing up in the classroom and the quality of education. The potential closure of the pool where Olympic gold medalist and recent high school graduate Lydia Jacoby trained is a symbolically powerful example of the ways in which the cut could inhibit students’ opportunities.
Similar to those who wanted to reform public safety by defunding the police, if the governor wants change in Alaska’s schools, simply defunding them is the worst possible way to go about it. He owes Alaskans an explanation of why these cuts were necessary and why he believes that Alaska’s schools are the best place to make them. He should roll up his sleeves and do the hard work of proposing and building consensus around education reform legislation like vouchers, limiting administrative spending and disposal of unused facilities. Absent that, it looks for all the world that our state’s chief executive is governing by vendetta. Alaska deserves better than that, and so do our children.