If you live in Anchorage and have, at any point in the last 20 years, had a direct or even tangential involvement with issues surrounding education, you probably know Andy Holleman.
The Trump Administration squeaked by nominee for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, in an unprecedented 51-50 U.S. Senate vote that required Vice President Mike Pence to break a tie. DeVos is a former chair of the Michigan Republican Party with zero public education experience and a well documented history of channeling her wealth into advocacy for private school vouchers.
At the state level, Alaska faces a multi-billion dollar budget deficit due to slumping oil prices and inaction by the legislature. A current proposal put forth by the Senate majority, and backed by Governor Bill Walker (I-Alaska), would cut the budget for the Department of Education and Early Development (DEED) at a time when municipal revenue sharing has been halved.
Anchorage School District (ASD) Superintendent Deena Bishop announced last month that the municipality faces a $15.3 million budget gap and recommended nixing 99 full-time classroom teacher positions — a reduction of nearly four percent of the 2,500 total positions.
This is not a fun time for public service. This is a time of damage mitigation. And damage mitigation doesn’t seem like a destination vacation for a newly-retired teacher.
Holleman is a longtime educator, part-time activist, outspoken advocate, and now school board candidate. During his tenure in classrooms, he taught science, technology, engineering, and math in classrooms a Dimond High School and Goldenview Middle School before logging four years serving as the president of the Alaska Education Association.
He said he first got involved in politics when the legislature changed the defined benefits pension system back in 2006 to a 401(k)-style plan. Since then, pension funding has swollen to a per capita level of $7,400 — the largest single liability held by the State, according to Walker’s State Debt Manager, Deven Mitchell.
“My reaction to it was, ‘This is stupid.’ And, in the long run, it’s going to be really harmful for Alaska in particular,” Holleman said. He worked with a group of educators who went to Juneau to explain the problem to lawmakers. The idea was, “if a handful of us kind of organized a little bit and explained this to the legislature, they’d realize that they’ve made a huge mistake and take care of it. That was the theory. It turns out, politics works a little differently. Sometimes, just explaining to people why they’re wrong isn’t enough.”
“I think that one thing they don’t get is, it never really was just their job to show up once a year and divvy up what the oil companies had given to us. But, when it’s a large amount of money, you get away with it. And they have,” he added. “So, I don’t fault them completely, but I do kind of. The system got set up to where the biggest source of funds [The Permanent Fund] that’s stable and predictable is used to pay dividends and the really erratic, unpredictable source of income [oil revenues] is how we fund our essential services. It’s just backwards.”
Since then, Holleman said, he’s kept a close eye on politics. When the calendar turned to October, then November, and then December, he noted that no candidate had jumped in the race that he felt he could vote for. So, he ran.
“[The Anchorage School Board] makes a difference in the flavor of the district and there’s some key issues where I think we could do better, and a few of them wouldn’t cost anything,” he explained. “We could exert some authority on key people in the district to treat each other more nicely. It’s really low cost and would have a positive effect on everybody.”
He thinks that recent trends in decision making have been too strongly centralized on the board, hampering the actual functionality of schools.
“We should be pushing that the board should be managing the superintendent; the superintendent should be managing the principals; the principals should actually be managing the schools. And, to some degree, we’ve had a couple administrators that liked to simply instruct the principals,” he said. “Because I have worked with so many teachers and because I’ve spent so much time with the board over the last few years, that’s something that kind of motivated me.”
Holleman used former-ASD Superintendent Jim Browder’s inclination to universalize English classes as an example.
“At one point, Jim Browder actually wanted every English class on a certain grade level to be reading out of the same book and about the same page on the same day,” he explained, adding with a laugh, “And finally someone had to explain to him that we don’t have that many books.”
The anecdote reminded me of a recent study published by the University of Alaska and DEED, which found that nearly three quarters of students enrolling in college had to take at least one remedial course. While graduation rates have been steadily on the rise, they remain behind the national average, and Alaska’s growing unemployment rate and transient nature of its residents often results in high turnover in school registration.
Holleman said those statistics were “really two different kettles of fish.”
On the one hand, he said, you have job transfers and military assignments resulting in moving in and out of the district. Teachers’ workloads often increase in response to this. He called that learning curve a “speed bump,” but said it was something teachers need to be prepared for and generally are.
On the other hand, many students who are moving within the district during a school year are doing so for other reasons.
“There’s often a story there,” he said.
It’s usually an indication that there is a problem. The family doesn’t have housing stability, which means they probably don’t have food stability. They may not have family status stability. And all those things wind up being a much bigger deal to the kids. When you have a kid that shows up, you can allocate a couple weeks for them to adjust and get on board and you can change your expectations for them as a teacher so that they come up to speed and they’re doing the work that they’re capable of doing. It’s tougher, but it happens.
He mentioned the high turnover rate at Bartlett High School as an example of where these issues are managed frequently.
But students are far from the only ones impacted by education cuts and Holleman worries about the current recommendation to lay off teachers in Anchorage, saying collateral damage comes by way of attrition whenever job losses spike.
“The last round, where we cut about 40 or 50 positions, there were well over 200 people that were involuntarily displaced,” he told me. “These are people that are ingrained in their schools. They feel like they’re part of the team. They feel like they matter right where they are, in the community where they are. And then the principal has to say, ‘You’re going somewhere else. We’re not sure where. And you’re going to start over.’”
“You know, good teachers will do it, and they do. But it has an impact on how you feel your work is valued. You can’t come away from that feeling like you’re an invaluable part of the team because clearly you are not.”
Holleman acknowledges the tough fiscal times and concedes that ground will be lost; programs and jobs will be cut. Edicts from the federal Department of Education could pursue voucher programs that upset the current system and reinvigorate calls to dump Alaska’s constitutional provision mandating a wall between public funding and private education.
“The good news is there’s not a direct chain of command,” he said, searching for silver lining in DeVos’s appointment. “The Department of Education, federally, is not in charge of the State department. They do have some things they can be really coercive about and I’m not sure what we’ll see there. But, what they do a lot of is what we saw under [Obama’s Secretary of Education] Arne Duncan when he did his ‘Race to the Top.’ Nobody had to participate in it, but if you wanted any funds from the government you had to.”
That doesn’t include certain mandatory federal funding, for programs like special education. During her confirmation hearing in the U.S. Senate, DeVos said that compliance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is “a matter that’s best left to the states.”
“They’re talking about $2 billion to the states, distributed on the basis of them, basically, offering vouchers. And, as it sits, that’s not really an option for Alaska,” Holleman cautioned. “There will be a huge bit of pressure fueled by the people that are really excited about that idea. They’ll come back around and go, ‘Look, we’re shorting ourselves $300 million because we’ve got this problem in our constitution. If we fix that, we can have jumbotrons at every high school. Every elementary school!’”
(Read more about Holleman’s thoughts on the DeVos appointment in The Anchorage Press.)
He said that’s something that will have to be dealt with as it happens, and is a large part of the reason he decided to run.
“We’re going to lose good things. The goal will be to cut the ones that are doing the least amount of good in order to keep the ones that are doing the most amount of good,” he concluded. “I do think that if we can get some autonomy back to local buildings and back to local classrooms, it will cause people to have more initiative and feel like they’re doing more valuable stuff.”