Alaska Editorials

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Here is a sampling of editorial opinions from Alaska newspapers:

July 24, 2015

The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner: Forging future rural leaders

Earlier this month, the members of the 33rd annual class at the Rural Alaska Honors Institute finished their six-week course of studies at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Though it doesn't have as high a profile as events such as the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics or the Alaska Federation of Natives convention, RAHI has long been a driver for positive change and educational opportunity in the Native community.

RAHI was established by the university in 1983 at the request of AFN. It takes high-achieving high school juniors and seniors from Bush communities around the state and brings them to UAF. Native leaders and university officials hoped it would help rural students not used to formal campus education an introduction to the college experience. For six weeks in June and July, RAHI students live in dormitories, take classes and get acquainted with UAF personnel.

The institute is now old enough it is seeing its second generation of students: Seven of the 60 students participating this year had parents who were RAHI students themselves. As the years pass, RAHI is becoming integrated into the fabric of the rural educational experience.

It's also showing its worth: a study in the mid-2000s found RAHI students were almost twice as likely to earn a bachelor's degree as peers who didn't participate in the program. It's a logical finding, as so much of the transition that takes place between high school and college has little to do with classwork. Some of the most difficult aspects of life as a college freshman involve personal responsibility: getting up on time, eating right and doing homework when parents aren't around to make sure students are staying on the straight and narrow. It's a difficult adjustment for those coming from an urban background; for those accustomed to village life, it can be a huge culture shock.

Personal responsibility and self-reliance are some of the pieces of the college experience RAHI helps establish. While six weeks in the summer is only a fraction of a college semester, it's a good amount of time in which to help students establish study habits, form positive peer groups and identify campus resources.

Since 1983, more than 1,000 students have come through the RAHI program. Despite Alaska's difficult financial situation, state leaders and university officials should see their way clear to making sure rural students can take part in the program for years to come. It's a resource that has proven its value in the outcomes of those who have graduated: in their communities and in the state as a whole, RAHI students are leaders, and they're helping to bring Alaska and its villages to a better future.

July 25, 2015

The Ketchikan Daily News: Big roll of the dice

Gov. Bill Walker is a man of his word, keeping his campaign promise to expand Alaska's Medicaid coverage.

As a result, an estimated 42,000 lower-income Alaskans will be eligible to receive free health care. About 20,000 Alaskans (5,200 in Southeast) are expected to enroll in Medicaid, according to a recent study.

Expansion means Walker will accept federal funds beyond those allocated by the Legislature; he has the authority to do it.

Supporters of Medicaid expansion applaud Walker's decisive move, but critics say even the current Medicaid is financially unsustainable. It's an expense in a state operating budget that had to be drastically cut during the most recent legislative session; the budget might experience severe cuts in coming years, too.

The federal government (taxpayers, us) will cover 100 percent of the additional cost in the first year — 2016 — but will drop the percentage to 90 within four years (2020). It will become the state's responsibility to make up the difference.

Walker says if the feds drop the percentage any further, Alaska would no longer participate. But, he also said during his campaign that he wanted only a single term, and, if he maintains that stance, then he wouldn't be the governor who would have to make that decision.

In the meantime, the expansion brings additional federal money to the state during a tough financial period. Ketchikan Medical Center and other health care providers might get paid more frequently for service provided to uninsured lower-income customers. Every payment helps the hospital and the community's economy.

Plus, Walker says the influx of extra Medicaid dollars will give him the flexibility to approach health care providers about lowering costs. In other words, the dollars give him bartering chips to encourage lower charges by providers.

Ultimately, the expanded Medicaid will prove to be a financial bridge to better days, or it will exacerbate the financial crisis in years to come when the feds back away from providing Medicaid dollars. The extra dollars serve as a carrot to entice states into expanded Medicaid.

In about a dozen other states that implemented expanded Medicaid when it became available several years ago, concerns have arisen. Mainly, enrollment exceeded expectations, which increased cost, a cost that the states will bear as the feds pay a lower percentage.

Kentucky, for example, experienced more than double its expected enrollment, which is projected to increase cost from an estimated $33 million to $74 million in 2017. Other states saw double or even triple their estimates.

The expansion will create new government jobs, and even at the very least possibly protect jobs in the private sector. But, the expansion requires new spending from both state and federal operating budgets.

Funding is limited and it has to come from somewhere. (Alaska has a $3 billion deficit; the United States' is $412 billion.) Generally, if one place gains funding, then another had to give it up. If more dollars go into health care, then the question becomes what state and federal services will receive less — public safety, education, transportation, employee benefits?

The Walker administration has hired a consulting firm for $400,000 for guidance in implementing and containing costs of Medicaid. Those dollars now can't be spent elsewhere or saved to reduce state expenses. It's a guess whether expected recommendations will lead to a return on the investment.

But little else is more important than health. Without good health, the quality and capabilities in life diminish dramatically. It should be a priority, and Walker has made it one. At the very least, lower-income Alaskans will be able to begin to receive health care — perhaps for a few years and maybe longer — or the care they were receiving will be paid for. But the answer to what the future holds for that care, Medicaid and Alaska is unclear. Most disturbing is that it perpetuates the idea that government will do for Alaskans when instead it should provide the infrastructure for an economy that allows Alaskans to do for ourselves, to be responsible for ourselves, to be able to pay for our own health care.

The expanded Medicaid is a gamble of enormous proportions. But Walker has the authority to act, and he's rolled the dice.

July 26, 2015

The Juneau Empire: Stepping beyond No Child Left Behind

Fourteen years ago, No Child Left Behind was rolled out with the promise that all the nation's children would meet benchmarks in English and math by 2012.

In case you're wondering, that never happened.

While NCLB failed, that doesn't mean national standards will never work. The Every Child Achieves and Student Success acts making their way through Congress look to supplant NCLB as the nation's blueprint to educational success, and they show promise.

Under the Every Child Achieves Act, which passed the U.S. Senate 81-17 last week, states will be able to develop their own assessment standards and decide how to include mandated tests for accountability. The annual testing requirements of NCLB will remain, but school districts won't be measured by those results alone. Graduation rates, state performance tests and other measures determined at the state level will be factored in.

Every Child Achieves would give Alaskans a voice in how we measure academic success, while maintaining the most important part of NCLB — that we are measuring success. Standardized testing is a necessary tool to gauge progress, but it can't be the only measuring stick. As much as NCLB raised the bar in some school districts, it watered down achievement in others, where teaching to the test became the norm.

NCLB was a step, but it wasn't the final step. It forced many states and school districts to measure the quality of their students' education, and those that failed to meet federal standards faced sanctions. But NCLB has outlived its worth and has needed an update for some time (it expired in 2007). That's why Alaska sought a waiver in 2013 after half its schools scored below appropriate benchmarks, and why another three-year waiver was recently granted.

The federal government has had its try with a one-size-fits-all approach to learning, and even though there have been many successes since 2003, the first year NCLB was in place, states have lost the ability to implement standards that meet their geographical and cultural uniqueness. The problem with that approach is apparent in Alaska, where a K-12 school can have fewer than 20 children, and English won't necessarily be their first language.

When the Elementary and Secondary Education Act passed in 1965, its goal was to address education inequality in the U.S. That act eventually morphed into NCLB, which created inequalities of its own, evidenced by the fact Alaska and six other states are now exempted from it.

Just as kids graduate from one grade to the next, it's time to leave behind No Child Left Behind.

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