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Friday, October 16, 2020

Alaska's Economic Reality

 

Our Economic Sweet Spot: The Mat-Su Valley

 

State Economist, Neil Fried recently explained the impact of the
China Virus Pandemic to a Mat-Su audience.

(2020©donnliston.com)

 

The Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development announced on October 16 that September jobs in our state are down 11.0 percent from last September; a loss of some 37,600 jobs. A presentation earlier this month in Wasilla, from DOL Economist III Neil Fried, examined economic trends during the China Virus Pandemic, revealing that the Mat-Su Valley seems to be fairing better than any other part of the state.1

 

“Restaurants and bars have been hit the hardest of any industry,” Fried explained. “Places hit the hardest were dependent either on the visitor industry or the fishing industry. Southeast Alaska was hit the hardest in the state as a region.”

 

These are the hard numbers but there is more to the story.

 



From Fried's presentation:

 

Mat-Su Valley employment for the first part of the year by industry:



 



“This is data from the first two quarters of 2020; the first data that reflects what is happening now to the economy during the 2nd quarter—April, May and June—based on the payroll ESC Reports that employers send to the Alaska Department of Labor every quarter,” Fried explained. “These are not guesses, these are not estimates, these are actual numbers from the data. What this is saying is, after all these years of growth, although we did decline a little bit in 2017 by 67, employment did fall in the first half of this year in the Valley compared to this time last year by 484 jobs.”


What about population considerations?


 



“We don’t have any current population growth data for the Valley yet,” continued Fried. “It will be interesting to see when the 2020 census comes out. We know the Valley was one of the only places in the state growing in 2019 while the state was actually losing population in 2018 and 2017. It is possible that the Valley did grow in 2020 but we do not know that. We (Department of Labor) don’t do estimates in 2020—we leave it to the Federal Government.”

 


The Big Picture

 

All measured industries lost jobs over the last year, September to September, with Federal Government jobs showing the only increase--by 900 jobs--due to the census.

 

“We were hit pretty hard,” Said Fried. “This is the fastest recession in state history; it isn’t the deepest yet but I think it will end up being that from a statewide standpoint.”

And this is how Mat-Su compares to other regions:

 



 

“Alaska got hit harder than some other places because of timing. We have the most seasonal economy in the United States by a long shot. We are in our own economic bubble here,” Fried explained. “The pandemic happened beginning in Feb-Mar so it had a huge impact on our seasonal industries—particularly tourism. In that sense we got hit harder probably than much of the rest if the country. The other thing that has been hit really hard is the oil sector—not directly because of covid although covid caused it—but because of low prices.”

 

This is important for the Valley economy because the Valley comprises the second largest workforce for the slope next to Anchorage.

 

“This shows numbers of people working in the oil industry and it is a sad story,” said Fried.  “During the recession we lost 5,000 jobs in the oil industry; it started to recover again in 2019, then 2020 came along and we started to lose jobs again. That is having an impact on the Mat-Su Valley. That industry has taken a pretty good hit: $40/bbl oil is better than -$3/bbl. They may be making a little profit at that level but it would be better if it came up to $50-$60/bbl to see the industry become more robust and investing more in Alaska projects.”




No mention of the General Election Ballot Measure to raise taxes on the Oil Industry.


“This was supposed to be a very good year for the oil industry, and a good year for the visitor industry,” added Fried. “We know now how quickly things can change.” 


The numbers are stark:

 

Statewide leisure and hospitality was down the most, with 13,600 fewer jobs than last September (-33.5 percent). The transportation, warehousing and utilities sector had 6,000 fewer jobs, mainly in scheduled air transportation and scenic and sightseeing transportation. Professional and business services and retail were also hit hard, while construction and manufacturing appeared to be slightly better off than initial estimates showed, according to Fried.

 

An Economic Sucker-Punch

 

“Alaska went from one of the lowest unemployment rates we have ever experienced in our history to one of the highest within a couple of months,” said Fried. “The unemployment rate is beginning to come down a little bit, but it is problematic still.”

 

According to the recent DOLWD press release: The state’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate declined slightly to 7.2 percent in September, and the comparable U.S. rate was 7.9 percent. Jobs and unemployment insurance claims will be better barometers of the state’s economic health in the coming months than the unemployment rate, which is a complicated measure that relies on statistical modeling and a household survey that has been difficult to conduct during the pandemic. Job losses remain historically large, and claims were more than six times higher than in September 2019.

 

But unemployment claims in the Valley are very different than the state overall, according to Fried: “In the Valley the largest UI numbers are in construction and that could be because construction was pretty healthy,” he explained. “It might sound contradictory but when you have a strong construction season you also typically have a large number of claims tied to construction when the season winds down. This is different than the rest of the state.

 


But there is more to this picture.

 

According to Fried: "Qualifications for Unemployment benefits has been liberalized dramatically. People who were self-employed, or could have been self-employed can now receive benefits. That has dramatically increased the potential number of people receiving unemployment to the point that comparing today to one year ago, or even three years ago, is under different rules. A much bigger group is eligible for UI that were never eligible before."

Does this translate to an increase in alcohol consumption?



Perhaps, but for those of us who maintain a sober lifestyle, one industry on the upswing during this crisis is a cause of some concern. Marijuana intoxicants are an economic high point.



 References:

 

1Department of Labor Press Release

 https://labor.alaska.gov/news/2020/news20-36.htm

 

Monday, October 5, 2020

Feeding Alaskans

 

Man Versus Machine: Who Cares about Alaska Food Sustainability?

STORY UPDATE RESPONSE FROM ADF&G

(2020©donnliston.com)


 

This is a story of one man attempting to deal with the machine known as the State of Alaska. We who have lived a long time in the State of Alaska know this machine well because it creates dependency while asserting to promote Alaskan independence. The contrast can be striking.

 

Pike Ainsworth lives in Anchor Point, near Homer, and has a typical Alaskan story of coming here after high school in Michigan to pursue his dream of living an independent life using his skills, abilities and natural resources of the area for creative food sustainability. We met at his cabin and Pike showed me some of the results of his endeavors. Readers will be able to determine if what he has been dealing with from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is reasonable.

 

The Alaska Challenge

 

First, let’s look at the big picture:

 

Previously many Americans have considered development of the west, and Alaska, as only noteworthy since arrival of settlers. One notable historian, Clyde A. Milner II has revitalized this view as having continuity with aboriginal peoples before arrival of American settlers in the 1840s, when western development was dependent upon Eastern U.S. capital and Eastern culture.1

 

Upon statehood Alaska formalized its longstanding economic, political and cultural dependence upon the United States, but formation of a state meant we are additionally subjected to a new state bureaucracy.

 


Alaskan Historian, Stephen Haycox describes our marriage to the US this way:

 

In Alaska few issues have generated as much anger as federal sovereignty, federal land management, and environmental regulation. Many Alaskans imagine themselves to be less dependent than other American citizens, and they view themselves as more individualist and more protective of their personal freedoms than other Americans.  But this same conviction of self-reliance also characterizes most parts of the American West, where an imagined history of mythic proportions helps to authenticate belief in the existence of, and membership in, a heroic society. These and other commonalities suggest that Alaska is an extension of the American West, not an exception to it, and thus should be viewed as part of it. Alaska history is thus another chapter in the history of the American West.2

 

Dr. Haycox further explains:

 

The American period of Alaska’s history is best understood in a colonial context, as is the Russian period. Alaska also shares this with the other states of the American West. Political and economic colonialism characterized Russia’s tentative and impermanent grasp of Alaska, and it has also characterized America’s relationship with the region. Dependence is the central element in Alaska’s colonialism. Alaska’s economy has been dependent on investors from outside the territory because the capital to develop regional resources has not resided in Alaska. But the only resources in the region are natural resources: hard rock minerals, fish, timber and forest products, and petroleum and natural gas. Only investment in exploitation of those resources has provided jobs in Alaska, and the non-Native, immigrant population has come to Alaska for jobs, not for subsistence.3

 

So, shouldn’t the State of Alaska be promoting endeavors which provide opportunities and encourage sustainable living for residents? Mr. Ainsworth believes he has experienced the opposite as federal agriculture agencies encourage his experimental agriculture endeavors while the State of Alaska plays the Chicken Dance song.

 

One Man’s Innovation

 

“I grew up on a dairy farm in Michigan so I always had animals around and helped my grandfather take care of the farm, growing crops and raising livestock,” explained Ainsworth in distinct elocution. “When I got up here in 1999 I noticed that there isn’t too much agriculture going on, so I started trying to think of new ways I could do stuff here that is energy efficient to sustain myself, local agriculture like Delta Barley and other local plants like nettles and dandelions, to feed livestock.”

 

To do this Ainsworth needed structures, and he experimented with what might work best.

 

“I started building geodesic domes, created a geodesic greenhouse,” he continued. I researched stuff they are doing with “aircrete” and created a geodesic aircrete dome structure that stays fifty degrees inside even after a week of minus 20 temperatures. As I experimented, I decided to try to build a geodesic dome I could grow food in, too. By covering it with compost and grass and sticks; the compost generated heat which even warmed up the aircrete dome more during winter. It stays cool in the summer and now I have raspberries growing over the top of it.”

 

Plenty of Alaskans do this, growing raspberries and making jams. Pike has gone further. But can he grow enough to sustain himself on a parcel of land near Kachemak Bay?

 

He says the prospects are promising.

 

“I raise all kinds of crops; I researched plants at this latitude all around the planet, since whatever grows in this temperature range anyplace else will grow here,” Pike continued. “So I started bringing stuff in. I’ve got Haskap Berries, Saskatoon Berries, Siberian Pea shrubs, Kyrgyz Red Goji Berries, Blue Aronia from Sweden, wild rice—I got the wild rice from Minnesota. I actually have wild rice growing in my wetlands up top--which also feeds wildlife up there. I have Russian Orange Sea Berry, which is a sea buckthorn shrub that makes a pinky sized berry that contains the same fats as salmon. It also makes nitrogen in the soil, so I have some of those here.4

 

Haskap Berries

Saskatoon Berries

 Kyrgyz Red Goji Berries

Siberian Peashrub

Pike clones wild mushrooms in logs, so he has producing mushroom logs on his property. “They are doing really good,” he adds. “Also, all kinds of raspberries--red and gold--apples, cherries.”

 

Fruit trees?

 

“I came up with a system for growing fruit trees,”  Ainsworth explained. “I realized the ground gets pretty cold here for trees to send down their main rootstock, so I will dig a hole and put blueboard at the bottom--with compost on top of that to trick the taproot to go laterally instead of straight down--to keep it shallow enough so I can actually grow stuff that normally isn’t grown here. I have some big cherry trees over there that should probably start fruiting next year.”

 

Ainsworth also raises and sells eggs from quail, chickens, turkeys, and guinea fowl. He would also like to raise and sell emu but that’s where the State of Alaska machine has ground him down after he applied to the Alaska Board of Game for a permit to raise emu for commercial purposes.

 



Immediately Ainsworth received word from state permitting biologist Tim Spivey that: “If a species is not listed on the clean list and not cleared by the Office of the state veterinarian, then we do not have a permit we can issue. Otherwise these things take time, but if you’re interested in submitting a proposal to add Emu’s to the Clean List, you can submit an agenda change request or you can petition the board” (of game).

 

Yeah, that’s right. You need to ask permission for something allowed in every other state in the United States. This is the State of Alaska, remember?

 

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game Clean List includes 31 species of birds including swans, peafowls, pheasant and Junglefowl, which are found naturally only in India, Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. Among reptiles on the Clean List are alligators, crocodile, nonvenomous lizards, snakes or turtles.5

 

In his response to this initial run-around, Ainsworth became petulant: I contacted the Biologist…and was told I could not get a permit because it’s not on the Clean List, but if it was not on a clean list I wouldn’t need a permit, by law I am supposed to be able to get a permit or have it listed on the clean list, not being able to provide any solutions isn’t an acceptable option in this matter, and I am not getting any help, there are 0 farmers on the board of game that means farmers have 0 representation, therefore they must add farmers to the board of game, or take up farm related issues separate from Game or fish issues, I am going to contact the USDA and a lawyer and show them these laws as I don’t believe they are Constitutional, would just like them listed but I can see there is complete resistance by all those officiating these laws to come up with a reasonable solution.

 

Response from Executive Director Kristy R. Tibbles February 4 was information that the Board of Game could add emu to the clean list at its upcoming meeting May 1 if Ainsworth submitted a proposal timely so they might consider it. Her next communique May 24, 2019 was infuriating to Ainsworth:

 

Dear Mr. Ainsworth,

I am sending this email to let you know I have received your proposal to the Board of Game asking to ad Emus to the “clean list” and the Agenda Change Request asking the board to add this topic to their schedule for the upcoming meeting cycle (2019/2020). The Agenda Change Request (ACR) will be scheduled for board consideration following the November 1, 2019 ACR deadline. During that meeting, the board will evaluate the ACR to determine if it makes the criteria under the ACR policy under AAC 92.005. If the board determines it meets the criteria and accepts it, it will then be added to the meeting agenda for either the January or March 2020 meetings. If it is not accepted, the process is to submit a proposal for the Statewide Regulations meeting which will be held early 2021. The proposal you already submitted does not meet the board’s Call for Proposals for the 2019/2020 meeting cycle and therefore will not be included in the board’s proposal book, (emphasis added) but I will retain it for the following year so it’s not necessary for you to resubmit it.

 

The gist seems to be: “your proposal was deficient but you can resubmit it for the next meeting.”

 

Ainsworth’s response was, in part: “I’m hoping to get emu on the clean list of poultry to own in Alaska, they already are in every other State in the US and are considered poultry by the USDA who provides services to emu farmers.”

 

According to USDA the meat of ostriches/emu has a gourmet market. “With a texture and color similar to beef, it is low in fat, calories and sodium. It has fewer calories, less fat and less cholesterol than beef, chicken or turkey. It also is a good source of iron and protein. Ground ostrich sells for $10.35 per pound, and ostrich filet steaks sell for $24.90 per pound.

 

The 2012 Census of Agriculture notes that 258 farms raised 6,540 ostriches and marketed about 3,141. This is a dramatic decrease from 2007, when 714 farmers raised 11,188 ostriches and marketed about 5,697. This continues declines from 2002. Texas, followed by California and Kansas, are the top three states in ostrich production. Texas is also number one in the production of emus, followed by California and Florida.6

 

Time to Step up to Emu possibilities

 

Like a lot of Alaskans are inclined to do when dealing with the State of Alaska machine, Ainsworth began a campaign. He tied up a lot of state workers in various agencies with emails, charges and nonproductive interactions. His comments and some 74 statements of support for adding emu to the Clean List were removed from ADFG public comments. He sued the Commissioner of ADFG, Douglas Vincent Lang, in small claims court (Case No. 3HO-20-00013 sc). When Homer Judge Siefert Bride took the side of State attorneys Ainsworth filed a complaint with the Alaska Commission on Judicial Conduct for Constitutional Rights violations

 

In a September 30, 2020 letter from special assistant to the commissioner, Rick Green, Ainsworth was informed that “Due to your recent and repeated threats to litigate against ADF&G employees, your requests for documents related to Official ADFG pages he was blocked from are denied because requests for documents related to litigation are to be made under court rules.”

 

Tit for tat and Alaskans are being denied access to a potentially valuable source of protein.

 

That is how the State of Alaska machine works. You want something? Let’s see if you can persevere to get it.

 

Come on guys, listen to Big Bird:



In the spirit of cooperation, Rick Green has provided the following email clarification on the status of Pike Ainsworth's application to the Alaska Board of Game. 

This could end well!




References:

 

1Clyde Milner II, Oxford History of the American West, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994)

 

2Stephen Haycox, Alaska an American Colony, (University of Washington Press, 2002) p 162.

 

3ibid p 164

 

4Plant References

Haskaps (also known as Honeyberries) are easy-to-grow, delicious and hardy. https://orchardpeople.com/how-to-grow-hascap-berries-also-known-as-honeyberries/

 

Saskatoon Berries

http://saskatoonberryinstitute.org/saskatoons/

 

Siberian Peashrub

https://plants.usda.gov/plantguide/pdf/pg_caar18.pdf

 

Kyrgyz red goji berry

The goji berry has been called the “red diamond” as it's thought to have anti-ageing powers (Credit: Whitestorm/Getty Images)

http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20200226-the-berry-that-keeps-asia-looking-young

 

Russian Orange Sea Berry

https://onegreenworld.com/product/russian-orange-2/

 

5Alaska Department of Fish & Game Clean list

https://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=pets.exotic

 

6Agricultural Marketing Resource Center

https://www.agmrc.org/commodities-products/livestock/ostrich-and-emu-53585

 

 

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Who Dares to Farm in Alaska?

  The Future of Alaska Food Security

Rayna Reynolds, 9, is a farm girl in the Matanuska Valley.

(2020©donnliston.com)

When 200 farm families were selected from three mid-western states to be moved to Alaska’s Matanuska Valley for a farming experiment in 1935, nobody was certain what would happen. During the early 1930s “Alaska agriculture was in its infancy as drought and the Depression were ravaging the Great Plains and the hearts of American farmers,” according to authors of the book “Matanuska Colony 75th Anniversary Scrapbook.1

Desperate times required desperate measures.

 The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, on January 15, 1935 reported: “A government corporation will be organized for the sending of the settlers to the North. It is declared this corporation will be financed by the Federal Emergency Relief Administration.

 So began Alaska’s quest for food security with agriculture. Today we produce a fraction of what our population requires, but our agriculture  community is robust thanks partly to the 4-H program.

 

From the 4-H web page:

 We are part of the University of Alaska Fairbanks; Alaska’s land-grant university.  Alaska 4-H is one of many programs  in the Cooperative Extension Service, a division of the School of Natural Resources and Extension at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

 

4-H is the largest youth development program in the US, engaging more than 7 million young people in hands-on projects in science, healthy lifestyles, citizenship, communications, leadership and many other areas. 4-H projects are taught by certified 4-H volunteers so youth are in a safe place with caring adults. 4-H is a program you can trust to help your children become career and college-ready.

 

Alaska 4-H is the state’s premier youth development program that is open to all youth from kindergarten through high school.  4-H is the only youth program affiliated with a university and using research-based information and strategies.  4-H gives young people the extra edge for life success by teaching essential life skills such as confidence, competence, character and community service.  Through 4-H, today’s young people become tomorrow’s leaders, creating a positive vision of the future.  In 4-H, youth work together with adults to make a difference in their communities, helping build a stronger nation.  Let 4-H become your child’s first class from the University of Alaska.2

 

“Alaska has quality in our stock,” explained the owner of Knik River Veterinarian Services, Dr. Sebrieta Holland. “One animal in Alaska is from a line of Alaska cattle that has been here for 6-7 generations and that bull is number three in the world for demand. The way that was made possible was through DNA Transfer. DNA is the same no matter what state you are in and he was measured on the same scale as every other bull and judged as having that high quality.”

 

I met Dr. Holland at Frozen Oak Farms where she was engaged in artificially inseminating 12 cows. This is a family farm where everybody has jobs to keep the farm producing. Rayne Reynolds, his wife Marian and nine-year-old daughter Rayna, were all part of the activity on this early fall afternoon.


Dr. Sebrieta Holland prepares the instruments needed to 
artificially inseminate a cow.

Artificial Insemination (AI) Means Healthy Gene Diversity


On this occasion the goal was to breed Alaska cattle with semen from Wagyu Bulls in Texas; they have a higher degree of marbling in the meat for the Japanese Kobe Beef delicacy. Increasing marbling in the meat enhances the eating experience.

 


“AI is a totally different ball game,” explained Reynolds. “It is difficult to fly up a whole cow to Alaska; it isn’t impossible, but it is cost-prohibitive. By flying up semen we can improve the genetics. We don’t AI everything, most of the cows are bred naturally, but this is a special project to enrich the herd over the long haul.

 

It costs a lot of money to ship the semen up here. Success rate can be 50-70 percent. The important thing is to bring new genetics into Alaska. A 50-60 percent success rate is expected.

Obviously Alaska is contained: “We have a mixture of cattle; Murray Gray, Black Angus, Hereford, Black Baldy,” Reynolds continued. “Traditionally Alaska genetics has been lacking with only a few breeds here: Primarily Galloway, Scottish Highland, Black Angus and Hereford. A lot of ranchers in Delta and some on the Kenai Peninsula started bringing in better genetics from Outside: like Red Angus, and constantly improving their breeding stock. There are ranchers in Delta who have brought in entire herds of certain breeds.”.


Dr. Holland has had a great influence on this diversification process as well. In her liquid nitrogen tank are stored thousands of dollars of semen inventory from all over the world, including horses, yaks, reindeer--even sheep from Australia going back to the 1980s. She successfully bred a sheep from the 1980s, from Australia, and that offspring is now here in Palmer, Alaska!

 

Dr. Holland also artificially bred the second yaks ever in North America

here in Alaska two years ago from some bulls in Montana. She explained: “It’s almost impossible to get that here. We collected the semen and I bred them in Willow at Sunny Hill Ranch. Yaks are becoming popular animals, but the gene pool is too small.”

 Explaining the process: The semen is placed in a syringe and heated by the veterinarian by placing the stainless steel instrument next to her own skin prior to the procedure.

 

The future of Alaska food security with agriculture

 

“One of the big things for us is involving the next generation of Alaskans in the industry,” declared Reynolds as daughter Rayna helped manage the enclosure mechanism containing each cow so Dr. Holland could administer the semen through the syringe. He continued: “It is important to teach children where food comes from. People are so disconnected with their food. At one time summer vacations were so the children could participate in bringing in the harvest. I had that experience of picking fruit at the end of summer but I would say a lot of the kids today don’t have that experience.”



Dr. Holland had that experience as a child raised in the Palmer/Butte area herself: “I was in Grow ‘em and Show ‘em 4-H Club when I was 9 years old!” she explained. “I resurrected that name when I had kids and became a 4-H Leader myself.”

 


What Alaska Agriculture Needs

 

“This industry needs people to make it work,” explained Reynolds. “We are lacking a workforce. We are able to run our operation with only family but there is a general lack of people with the skills and willingness to do this kind of work. This is hard labor; none of it is easy.”

 

“Agriculture is a good life; but you’ve got to love it. We don’t make a lot of money but we eat well and enjoy a unique quality of life--mentoring young people on the farm through 4-H and Future Farmers of America (FFA)” he continued. “Look at what Rayna has been exposed to. She raised that calf as a bottle baby and has a good relationship with it. When we get a good heifer we keep it in the herd but feed cost is a challenge. We have to manage the herd to make a profit.”


 

We appreciate businesses supporting healthy locally grown food, like Mike’s Quality Meats, Mt. McKinley Meats, Mat-Valley Meats and Three Bears Alaska.3

 


Reynolds concluded: “Farming is a tough business. It is hard anywhere, whether in the Midwest or in Alaska, farming is demanding. We have unique challenges in Alaska; longer winters, availability of feedstuffs, those and other challenges are different here--but farming is hard everywhere.”

 What began as a tent city filled with hopeful new arrivals in Palmer is today still a quaint community in the fastest growing region of Alaska. It's economic foundation is still food security. Back on May 23, 1935 a drawing was held for colonists to choose from 209 plots offered for settlement. The land was not "given" to the settlers, they went into debt to own it.

This was an investment in the future of Alaska that endures today.


References:

 

1Lynette A. Lehn and Lorraine M. Kirker, “Matanuska Colony 75th Anniversary Scrapbook,” 2010, Self Published ISBN 978-0-692-00887-4

 

2 http://www.alaska4h.org/

 

3 https://donnliston.blogspot.com/2020/06/how-can-alaska-gain-food-security.html


Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Who Cares about Your Kid’s Education?

 A challenge for Alaska Parents:

(2020©donnliston.com)

 

As a teacher in training in Juneau I worked in a program providing outdoor experiences for young children. Before embarking on a group hike of the local area the kids had to be oriented to safe practices. One of the things we asked, while pointing at our face, was: “Whose face is this?”

 

They replied: “Your face!”

 

Then we asked, pointing at their faces: “Whose face is that?”

 

“My face,” they replied.

 

“So, who is responsible for my face?” we continued. "And who is responsible for your face? And if you are following somebody in the woods, and a branch hits YOUR face, whose fault is that?”

 

Alaska public education is now that branch hitting some hapless parents' faces.

 

Today anybody with an Education from Alaska public schools is at great disadvantage if they want to live anyplace but here. Our specialized economy traditionally imports persons with special training and skills for top paying Alaska jobs; the rest work for the State of Alaska, in a unionized trade, or scratch out a living in the service sector. I have overcome the disadvantage of having an Alaska Public Education mostly with independent endeavor--and bluster.

 

But since March of this year the China pandemic has altered this dynamic. Ted Stevens International Airport is increasing as a hub for trade while our state and local economies are in free-fall. Parents are looking at the coming school year with trepidation as our unionized teachers join their national brothers and sisters in threatening to cower in place.

 

Parents may require new babysitters.

 

Perhaps this is a time to take a hard look at the factory model of Alaska public education and anticipate a better way. As an educator and trained teacher I have studied this. As an Alaskan I have lived it.

 

One of the arguments I recall my father making for coming to Alaska from New Mexico in the early 1960s was the reportedly high quality of the Anchorage School District (ASD) academic program. New Mexico was then at the bottom of the states for its schools--as it remains today. Alaska has joined New Mexico since then.

 

According to National Center for Education Statistics (NCES):

 

In math, 33 percent of Alaska 4th Grade students were proficient, ranking our state at a shameful 46th among the 50 states in 2019. This has not changed since 2003. At the NCES interactive web page comparisons can be made between Alaska and any other state of the nation.1

Parents anticipating a move to Alaska can easily see the comparison. 

Alaska’s standing in Grade 4 Math:

By 8th grade Alaska students’ average proficiency declined to 30 percent; only slightly above the rate of 2017. This has declined slightly since 2003, a time when Alaska was slightly above the national average in this area.

 Alaska’s standing in Grade 8 Math:

Reading scores for Alaska 4th grade students were also among the lowest of the nation in 2019. Overall, 25 percent were proficient in Reading. This is a consistent theme of our Alaska schools.

Alaska’s standing in Grade 4 Reading:

 

And it doesn’t get any better.

By 8th grade Alaska reading proficiency on average declined to 23 percent average in 2019. It is not statistically significant from the rate in 2003.

Alaska’s standing in Grade 8 Reading:

 

Smart parents considering a move to Alaska may not see our public education as being worthy of their children. Once my dad brought his wife and three kids here he had to supplement our education when we moved to rural Alaska. That hasn’t changed even in the face of an oil bonanza.

 

This is the reality: We have an education model based on more than 50 independent school districts, each with its own School Board, Superintendent, and administrative structure soaking up State money designated by our Alaska Legislature in backwater Juneau like a sponge. The majority of teachers are actively recruited from Outside. To add insult to injury, in January of 2019 the University of Alaska Anchorage School of Education programs lost accreditation.2

 

Our system is more about wealth distribution than about education. Every local school board is like a little bird in a nest with its mouth open.

 

The Pandemic Opportunity

 

I was in Juneau when public education “charter schools” were legalized in a bill introduced in 1995 by Sen. Bettye Davis. As an employee of NEA-Alaska I was surprised that such a tried and true friend of the teacher union would introduce such legislation diverting school children from traditional programs to parent-directed learning. I know now that this legislation turned out to be a pre-emptive move to assure that all Charter Schools in the state have the same union teachers on their Alaska Adventure as have been delivering poor results for decades.3

 

Today there are all manner of Charter schools and home school support programs sponsored by school districts for parents who have lost faith in our education factories. Some must be drawn by lottery and parents provide transportation for their kids. Such a deal.


 

A closer look at our dismal education profile

 

In 2018, as staff for Rep. Lora Reinbold, I correlated the salaries paid for superintendents in all of Alaska’s school districts with the performance of students as measured by the PEAKS test. I gathered information from the Association of Alaska School Boards (AASB), where I had worked during the mid-1980s as a database technician in Juneau. Back then I helped set up the statewide information gathering system used to support contract negotiations when Alaska still cared about keeping education costs down. AASB gave up that goal long ago except to keep track of the numbers for advocacy purposes, and today school boards are just another special interest group that converges on the legislature every year insisting on more education funds  to pay mostly expendable teachers despite declining enrollments and ever declining academic outcomes.

 

They have no shame.

 

Every district is monitored by the Alaska Department of Education annual testing program. Substantial amounts are directed to each district by the legislature. The state budget passes only once the education budget has been approved by NEA-Alaska and associated groups aligned with various special interests. Here is the published chart of academic outcomes compared to economic commitment in terms of district superintendent salaries and benefits:




To consider alternatives to our broken education system at this time we must understand it as we might a money pit home we cannot afford anymore. Parents must decide the future of this system and direct elected officials and education bureaucrats to deliver academic results.

 

Notice that the data in these spreadsheets is organized by region. Southeast Alaska has some 17 districts fed directly from $Juneau$. Southcentral Alaska has the bulk of students in only 5 districts. Interior includes the Fairbanks North Star Borough. Southwest, and Northwest districts are in the unincorporated borough. These regions represent natural education areas, and could perhaps be aligned with Native Corporations established under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, for efficiencies of scale and regional autonomy.

 

This is a scam. Proficiency rates are notoriously low and The Alaska Department of Education, the Alaska Legislature and every Alaska school district knows the status of our state’s public education outcomes, yet they continue to whistle past the graveyard.

 

During the same 30th legislative session when I created the above chart of district performance, Commissioner Michael Johnson presented the Alaska Department of Education version of reality. 

From the report4: 

No reference to academic proficiency. Responsibility for “educational excellence” is with the tribal and community rather than to the State of Alaska or the many professionals engaged in delivery of public education. The entire system is a fountain of happytalk. We who have been through this system have accepted the steady and precipitous decline to this time in history despite untold opportunity for decision makers to address inadequate public education in Alaska.

 

It is time to take action!

 

The obligation and responsibility to train children has been termed The Intergenerational Transfer Of Cognitive Skills and is today a cornerstone of Adult Basic Education (ABE) of adults who did not finish traditional high school. The ABE system began in 1941 when young men returning from serving in the military during war needed skills to be employable in the economy.

 

In 2014 the entire GED was upgraded to nationally normed 12th grade competency. I helped many people get their GED over nine years. In Alaska it is administered through the Department of Labor, not the Department of Education.


To learn more: GED.com


 In that teaching job I became familiar with Intergenerational transfer of Cognitive Skills through the work of former Harvard Professor, Tom Sticht, PHd who began his career by supplementing traditional public education to make recruits adequate for military service.

 

As a researcher, Dr. Sticht contributed to the knowledge of early childhood education, and conducted the first conference on Intergenerational Transfer of Cognitive Skills. Many articles were published by him on the role of oral language and the transfer of literacy.4

 

New expectations of education

 

The China Pandemic has impacted public education by instituting fear of face-to-face contact for vulnerable people who are dis-proportionally impacted by the illness. Political leaders have determined what emergency measures are necessary given medical realities. In March the schools were closed and on-line options substituted for classroom interactions between teachers, aides and students.

 

Ultimately parents are in charge of directing their children’s learning. They must find a way to do this while also attempting to participate in the economy to support their families.

 

In his academic writings Dr. Sticht presents the background for a previous time when the United States was faced with a need to educate people who had been denied meaningful education:

 

In the Antebellum period, the education of African American slaves was generally forbidden by various state laws. For instance, acts passed by the General Assembly of North Carolina in 1830 made it a crime punishable by thirty-nine lashes to teach "slaves to read and write, the use of figures excepted" (Jacobs, 1861/1987, p. 270). Nonetheless, many adult slaves were taught to read and write by abolitionist whites or other slaves. Some learned from their masters or by overhearing tutors working with their masters' children or by other surreptitious means (Woodson, 1919/1968).4

 

With conclusion of the Civil War the United States had to find a way to educate people who had expressly been denied education. The schools were inadequate for the job and many former slaves attended night classes at local schoolhouses to learn what they needed to know to be citizens.

 

Smart parents must now find ways to educate the next generation of Alaskans despite union educrats with only tin cups and bluster.

 

References:

 

1 National Center for Education Statistics

https://www.nationsreportcard.gov/profiles/stateprofile/overview/

 

2UAA School of Education programs lose accreditation, Anchorage Daily News, 011519, Michelle Theriault Boots

https://www.adn.com/alaska-news/education/2019/01/17/uaas-teacher-preparation-programs-lost-accreditation-how-did-it-happen-and-whats-next/


3Initial Charter School Legislation (1995)

http://www.akleg.gov/basis/Bill/Slalookup?sla=1%20ch%2077%20SLA%201995#1

 

4Report to the Alaska State Legislature 2018

https://education.alaska.gov/akedchallenge


5National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy (NCSALL)

http://ncsall.net/index.html@id=576.html

From Wikipedia:

 

Dr. Thomas Sticht was awarded UNESCO'S Mahatma Gandhi Medal for his twenty-five years of service and dedication.[1]

 

Sticht created Functional Context Training for the U.S. Military.[2] His biggest contribution has been his research on improving the literacy skills for the new recruits of the United States Army, Navy, and Air Force.

 

Functional Context education is defined as instructional strategy that integrates the teaching of literacy skills and job content to move learners more successfully and quickly toward their education and employment goals.[3][4] He later developed a training program to elevate literary skills in adult learners. Functional context training stresses on building upon prior knowledge to construct new concepts to accomplish difficult tasks. Sticht proposed that instructors should formulate better learning environments that incorporate real world situations to increase students' performance.

 

Sticht contributed to the field of Functional Context theory where he proposed that it was vital to make learning relevant to learners. The model of Cognitive system consisted of three components:

 

1.     Knowledge based (prior knowledge of the learner)

2.     Processing skills (problem solving, language skills, and learning strategies)

3.     Information displays that present information.[2]

 

The Functional Context approach recommends new assessment methods such as measuring functional learning and academic learning.

 

 

1"The Intergenerational Effects of Adult Education". Literacy Coalition of Onondaga County. August 13, 2012. Archived from the original on April 2, 2015. Retrieved March 3, 2015.

2 Functional Context Training

3Wider Opportunities for Women, 2009.

4Functional Context education

 

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