By KEVIN DIAZ
March 19, 2007
She is one of 62 Native Alaskan educators in the district who have been working on college degrees through a federal program that is now on the chopping block in Washington.
"If I didn't get to meet my professors," she says, "I'd just be an outsider. There would be no personal connection."
The Alaska Native Education Program is part of a $100 million package of proposed budget cuts that have put the Alaska congressional delegation at loggerheads with the Bush administration.
The budget fight comes as Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Don Young are pushing plans to fine-tune the way native and rural Alaska school districts meet the testing mandates of Bush's signature No Child Left Behind law, which Congress must renew this year amid widespread criticism from lawmakers in both parties.
The common thread: Rural Alaska schools need more money and less interference from Washington.
"It worries me greatly to represent a place that is not understood, apparently, by this administration," Sen. Ted Stevens told Education Secretary Margaret Spellings this week. "I look at what's been done and I can't believe that such a meat ax would be placed on the education budget for Alaska and Hawaii."
Most of the Alaska programs zeroed out in the White House education budget for next year target the state's native population. The $34 million Native Education Program that funds the college courses of school aides like Coffey is the biggest of the lot. A $12 million higher education program for Alaska and Hawaiian Natives also faces elimination, as does a $3 million program that fosters learning through cultural and historical organizations.
Some observers say that Alaska's lawmakers have a good chance of restoring much - if not all - of the federal education money slated for cuts.
"The proposed cuts to rural and native education are very upsetting to the state," said John Katz, who heads up the Alaska governor's office in Washington. "But it may well be that Congress rewrites the education portion of the president's budget."
Young and Stevens, veterans of decades of congressional budget wrangling, say they intend to do just that. But unlike in recent years, they will be working as Republicans in a Congress led by Democrats who are under pressure to trim back earmarks for local and special interest programs.
Another factor is that the Bush administration, confronted with a slowing economy and growing war costs, has been forced to hold the line on much domestic spending outside of defense and homeland security.
Stevens noted that this is the first year that the Education Department has requested no funding for the Alaska native programs, as well as for a $73 million nationwide physical education program named after his long-time aide, Carol White.
"I believe we'll increase the amount of the education funding, but how much of it will be available for Alaska, I don't know," he said.
Stevens accused Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director Rob Portman of "overreaching" in targeting programs funded by past Alaska earmarks, including the money for Alaska natives. "They're not earmarks that came off the wall," Stevens said. "They were authorized by Congress."
Andrea Wuebker, an OMB spokeswoman, said Friday that rural Alaska school districts could replace some of the lost funding with other federal programs, such as Title I grants for local schools and Indian education.
Murkowski, however, notes that the Bush administration has no plans to significantly increase Title I funding next year.
Meanwhile, she says Native Alaskans remain an easy budget target: "They don't have highly-paid lobbyists in Washington."
Murkowski argues that the timing could not be worse, as Congress takes a fresh look at the No Child Left Behind system of grade and secondary school testing.
"You are jeopardizing the very programs that give Native Alaskans the edge forward they need," she said. "It's absolutely a phenomenally blindsided move."
Amid growing calls to allow states to opt out of the system of national grade-level testing, Murkowski and Young are pushing for more flexibility to help rural Alaska school districts with diverse and far-flung student bodies meet their testing requirements.
Murkowski's bill, which she will introduce next week, and Young's bill, which he introduced earlier this month, both make provisions for students who are not proficient in English.
Both bills also relax restrictions on teacher qualification. "A piece of paper doesn't make you a good teacher," said Young, a former teacher.
Meanwhile, the money to help increase the number of Native Alaska teachers like Coffey hangs in the balance.
"Many teachers from the outside don't stay long," said Coffey, who is eight classes short of a teaching certificate. "I want to complete my degree and stay here."
Scripps-McClatchy Western Service, http://www.scrippsnews.com
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