Capitol rally calls for more funding to support STEAM education in Alaska

Participants brave the rain outside the state capitol at the second annual March for Science in Juneau on Saturday. (Photo by Adelyn Baxter/KTOO)

Supporters of science and public education rallied outside the state Capitol on Saturday as legislators debated education funding.

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First grade teacher at Harborview Elementary School Jennifer Thompson led the crowd in a chant so the legislators inside could hear them.

“STEAM starts early. Learning makes it great. We all work together; innovate and create!” they yelled in unison.

This was the second annual March for Science. Participants in the international event call upon lawmakers to base their policies in evidence-based research and facts. This year, organizers partnered with Great Alaska Schools, a statewide organization that advocates for quality public education.

“Right now, as we know, the Legislature is deciding about school funding,” Emily Ferry, a volunteer with Great Alaska Schools who helped organize the rally, said. “And we know that having hands-on science experiences, as well as art and music experiences, can really enhance education and we want to have those experiences for our kids so that we can have a strong future for Alaska.”

Ferry and many of the speakers talked about the importance of emphasizing STEAM — an acronym for science, technology, engineering, art and math education — at an early age.

As nearly 100 people rallied outside, the Legislature was inside discussing two critical education bills.

The Senate passed House Bill 287 on Saturday; it’s likely to go to conference committee to resolve differences over funding. It funds education independently from the overall state budget, with the intent that it would pass earlier.

And HB 339 would increase the state’s per-student funding to school districts. The House passed the bill Saturday afternoon. It now goes to the Senate.

School districts and educators across the state have advocated in favor of both bills, but particularly HB 339. The Juneau School District built its budget for next school year with the hope that HB 339 would pass.

“If the Legislature does not increase education funding, then the school board’s going to have to go back and cut even more programs, more teachers,” Ferry said. “That’s going to make bigger class sizes, it will be less individualized, harder for students to learn, less programs to make it engaging and hands-on. I think the kids lose.”

Among its budget cuts, the Juneau School Board voted to end a college readiness program called AVID at the middle school level.

Thunder Mountain High School junior Laurine Araneta spoke about the program and the advantage it gave her when entering high school and starting to think about college.

“For me personally, my mom didn’t graduate college and AVID has helped me just get into it … like, find out how to apply for grants and scholarships and financial aids,” Araneta said. “You know, for students who really want to go to college, if they’re not informed, then I feel like they’re discouraged to even try because they don’t have that guidance or support.”

Earlier in the week, a report card from the National Center for Education Statistics revealed that Alaskan students in grades four and eight scored below the national average in both reading and math yet again.

Those scores also declined from 2015, the last time the national test took place.