Education issue fuels candidates for Senate Seat K

Political newcomer Clare Ross is running against Representative Mia Costello for Hollis French’s old Senate seat, District K in southwest Anchorage. French decided to run for Lt. Governor instead. Now the two women are competing for the opening and are both making the same promise — that they’ll improve education in the state. 

On a recent sunny evening, Clare Ross walks through a neighborhood off of Jewel Lake, knocking on doors.

“Hi! My name’s Clare Ross. I’m running for State Senate,” she tells the teenage boy who opens the door. “Can I talk to your folks?”

“Mom!” he shouts up the stairs.

Raquel Divina hustled to the door, her toddler in tow. Ross asks her what’s important to her during this election.

“I think for me, it’s the schools,” she says. “Mainly since I have all my kids — three out of four of my kids go to school.”

Ross says it’s a comment she’s heard all throughout her months knocking on doors, and it’s one of the main focuses of her campaign.

“If we don’t invest in our schools and our kids are falling behind, they’re not going to do well in college or in their careers. And on the other side of that, people aren’t going to want to stay and invest in a community where there are not good schools. So I’m worried that we’re going to lose families, and people are going to go look for opportunities elsewhere if our schools get too bad.”

Thirty-six-year old Ross has never held public office before. She moved to Alaska straight out of college and worked in tourism and biochemistry before taking a position at the Anchorage Public Library.

Ross says while she was there, she worked to improve education both through early literacy programs and by launching Teen Underground. Her support for increasing the Base Student Allocation and forward funding schools earned her a Seal of Approval from the advocacy group Great Alaska Schools.

Ross says the Legislature needs to follow the state’s constitution and adequately fund education. She thinks other things, like the road in Juneau or the Susitna Dam, can wait.

“There are a lot of projects that don’t need to be done this year. They can be pushed back a couple years until our funding looks better. When hopefully the gas pipeline gets going or some of these oil developments get going. And that’s when we should be spending money on these projects.”

Ross’s opponent, Republican Representative Mia Costello, has lived in District K almost her entire life. Before being elected to the House in 2010, the 46-year-old worked as a teacher and a public relations executive.

Costello agrees with her opponent — education needs to take precedence. She negotiated and voted for increasing the BSA in 2014 when serving on the House Finance Committee.

“As a former high school teacher, I’ve been really an important voice to educate other legislators about the challenges of teaching.”

Costello taught for six years and won an award for developing a program where high schoolers ran a mock legislative budget debate.

But unlike Ross, Costello won’t commit to raising the BSA next year. She says it would be irresponsible since she doesn’t know what the state’s revenues will be.

“Our budgets are not sustainable. And so last session we actually reduced the operating budget. And it’s like turning an airplane around,” she says as an airplane buzzes overhead. “And I’m a pilot, I can tell you that turning that plane around will take a little while, but we’re going in the right direction.”

Walking between houses near Sand Lake, Costello says that when she goes door knocking, her constituents don’t just ask her about education.

“For the most part, you know, people have questions about roads and pot holes along their street and things like that. They feel that it’s government’s job to take care of those things, and it is. We have a lot of responsibility to take care of those things.”

As the geese finish flying overhead, Costello heads toward another door.

“Hi!… Hi there,” she says calling to a father and son. “I’m Mia Costello and I’m running for Senate in your neighborhood.”

Both candidates expect to be knocking on hundreds more doors in the final weeks leading up to the November 4th election.