Saturday, November 28, 2009

An Alaska twist on the rural school funding quandary

William Yardley reported in the New York Times a few days ago about rural school closures in Alaska. The print edition headline speaks volumes: "Saddest math for a Rural Alaska School: 10-1=0." The reference is to the requirement that a school have 10 students--that's right, just 10--in order to receive state funding. But the tiny school Nikolski, Alaska, population 39, in the Aleutian Islands, has just fallen short of that magic number. The Nikolski school, built in 1939 by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, has just closed, but as Yardley points out, it is hardly alone. Four other rural Alaska schools have recently closed, and dozens of others are at risk for closure.

Here's an excerpt from the story, this part focusing on the quandary facing Alaska, where--as in the rest of the United States--about 20% of the population (and falling) live in rural places.
Concerns over the cost and quality of education in rural areas have long generated tension: can preserving village life be balanced with preparing students for a broader world? A court settlement in the 1970s required the state to build high schools in most villages, prompting an expensive construction boom. But by 1998, with oil revenues no longer soaring, the State Legislature decided that schools with fewer than 10 students would face severe cuts in financing. With some parents leaving villages in pursuit of better education anyway, some lawmakers said saving schools was missing the point.
One particularly interesting aspect of this story for me is what rural schools and parents have done in order to try to remain open: They have advertised for students! For one school in southeast Alaska, the strategy worked. Two families moved to Tenakee Springs, population 104, after the district advertised on Craigslist for families with school-age children.

But Tenakee Springs is only 2.9% "American Indian or Alaska Native," whereas that ethnic group make up 70% of Nikolski's population. As Yardley notes, in Alaska, rural schools are "at the heart of a broader debate ... over the treatment of native communities" which comprise the vast majority of the state's rural population.

The story is accompanied by some terrific audio-visual tools. A map here shows the schools most at risk of closure, and it also reflects population gain and loss for various regions. There is also a video, as well as a slide show here.

1 comment:

rachel said...

That the rural schools at issue here are in native American communities seems to me to complicate the normal concerns about pouring money into struggling schools that are only instructing small numbers of students. The concern (or lack therof) with shutting down another rural school seems always to be: what is lost? And here the answer seems perhaps more clear than in the typical rural community-- a culture, a language, an element of American history is being lost. This story reminded me of the factors that must typically be met in international law before a people group can lawfully exercise self-determination by secession. One factor is whether the group experiences preservation of their language and culture. The decision to shut down the school may be as easy as counting to ten, but can the loss incurred ever be undone? Or is it too late anyway?