Op-Ed from Rep. Chris Tuck: Public education can improve with our support

For many Alaskans, going back to school is an exciting time of year. Students are excited to see their friends and take on new challenges. And parents are proud — even sometimes a bit relieved — as their children get back on the bus after a busy Alaska summer. It's a fresh start, a chance to build on past experience and an opportunity to develop new skills and knowledge.

But parents and teachers know that the learning doesn't stop when the students aren't in school. And what youths learn at home, at camp, or out in the Alaska outdoors can have a big impact on how a child performs in the classroom. Just as those experiences cannot, and should not, be standardized, students are not standardized either. As any parent knows, what works for one doesn't necessarily work for another. And not all kids share the same opportunities or challenges.

To be effective, Alaska's education system cannot be one-size-fits-all, and it's going to need some help outside the classroom. To be fair, our schools aren't all failing, and many Alaska students get a great education that opens doors for them down the road. But there are many things we can do to make sure the education Alaskans get is the best possible. Here are three things we can do right away:

• First, the governor should apply for Alaska's waiver from the overreaching federal "No Child Left Behind" law that tries to force the school in Anvik into the same cookie cutter as schools in Anchorage, Anaheim, Calif. or Annapolis, Md. Schools should have goals to reach, but they shouldn't be punished for not reaching another school's goal.

• Second, if parents want to learn how to prepare their preschoolers to excel in kindergarten and beyond, we can get them the tools they need so they can do what's best for their student, their family and their circumstances. Numerous studies show that the experience children have before kindergarten can have a major impact on their future education, jobs, income and likelihood of staying out of jail. Earlier this month, Senator Lisa Murkowski recognized this as she introduced her effort to reduce dropout rates saying, "Some may ask why I focus on toddlers and elementary school kids if we're trying to solve the high school dropout problem facing our nation. The reason is simple: That's when children's troubles in school begin."

As one way to make sure Alaska's preschoolers are getting positive opportunities, I authored legislation to bring the successful "Parents as Teachers" opportunities to more Alaskans. "Parents as Teachers" teaches parents about how their infants, toddlers and preschool age students learn. It gives parents a wide array of ideas for how to help their children get ready for kindergarten and beyond so families can choose what's right for them. It's voluntary for families, proven successful on military bases and in Alaska communities, and it works. The bill advanced to the House Finance Committee this year and I look forward to pushing it through the rest of the process next session.

• And last, if Alaska youths earn the opportunity to advance their education, money shouldn't get in the way of them taking it. Last year, the Legislature insisted on including money for needs-based scholarships in the budget. We need to make those scholarships a permanent part of our state's scholarship plan. That way, Alaska students who need it not just this year, but down the road, can count on getting the help they need so they can get the education they deserve.

As our children head back to school, whether it's the exciting first day of kindergarten, the bittersweet first step onto a college campus, or any step in between, Alaskans deserve the resources to get the most out of their educational opportunities. The state can do a lot to help, and I look forward to going back to Juneau to help make a homegrown Alaska education even better than it is today.

Read it at the Anchorage Daily News: http://www.adn.com/2011/08/28/2036574/public-education-can-improve-with.html

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