Zack Fields

Zack Fields

The Anchorage School Board recently passed a package of school bond projects, which goes to the Anchorage Assembly and then to voters for approval on the April ballot. This bond package contains 28 projects from Chugiak to South Anchorage, including one that is close to the heart of many Anchorage residents: replacement of the Inlet View Elementary School building. This is not a mere building replacement: It is a statement of values about public education, and about our belief in a bright, prosperous, and equitable future for our neighborhood, our city, and our state.

Inlet View is a "neighborhood school," which means that most students reside in the neighborhoods nearby: South Addition, Forest Park, Bootleggers Cove, and Downtown. Yet Inlet View doesn't just serve one neighborhood--graduates of Inlet View live throughout the city. Since the school was built in 1957, many generations have grown up in the school and now live throughout the city. We have a multi-generational investment in this school. But that's not all. Every neighborhood school has a number of children who go elsewhere--to a charter, or homeschool. For every child in the Inlet View zone who goes elsewhere, a child from outside the neighborhood can lottery in and attend Inlet View. This is a microcosm of the broader, widely-supported system of public school choice within Anchorage. Thus, replacement of the Inlet View building isn't just a vote for the future of Downtown, South Addition, Forest Park, and Bootleggers Cove. It isn't just a commitment to many more generations of high quality public education in our city. It's a commitment to an entire system of public school choice, which empowers parents while maintaining access for all.

Inlet View is grossly undersized for the area it serves. "Portable" classrooms have housed students on site for 15 years--not so portable. This neighborhood is growing, and the number of students in the neighborhood are growing. If we merely maintained the existing structure (an expensive, inefficient proposition), we would exclude students not just from adjacent neighborhoods, but from across the city. Shrinking the Inlet View zone would make it more of a wealthy enclave, whereas constructing a replacement building represents our faith in and commitment to access in a system of public school choice. As someone who grew up in a racially and economically segregated school system in the South, I take this very personally--we must replace Inlet View so students from the whole neighborhood and beyond can attend. In a city as diverse as ours, it is unacceptable to exclude the poor from outstanding schools, and it is equally unacceptable to cluster rich kids in an enclave where they never experience firsthand the diversity of our city. By replacing Inlet View with a properly sized building, the School Board and District are maintaining fidelity to our community's vision of public school choice.

Yet replacement of Inlet View represents more still. An investment in the core of Anchorage, yes. A commitment to our exemplary system of public school choice, yes. Also: A commitment to democracy, to the concept that every single person has value. At a time when democracy is under attack, we can look back across the arc of history and reflect on how exceptional democracy is, how exceptional it is to have a system of government in which we at least attempt to recognize the value and sanctity of every human life. A school is the most basic investment we make that says, yes, your life matters. As a kid who's poor, a kid who's rich, maybe a kid who's never felt like hardly anyone cared. Like democracy, a system of public schools is relatively new in the human experience. Like democracy, it is not universal. Our system of public schools--from early childhood to adulthood--is little more than a century old. It wasn't so long ago that public education was brief or non-existent, and children represented cheap labor as much as anything else. Our schools are the most tangible and powerful embodiment of a values system that says each little kid's life matters--and they do.

Why Inlet View, in this discussion of little kids and the value of human life? Inlet View was built in 1957. It is a Statehood school. Here we are, more than 60 years later, facing a central question: Do we maintain that boundless optimism of the Statehood generation, or retreat into a dark pessimism that says we can't even afford to maintain and replace the schools we have? When the Statehood generation built Inlet View, they may not have had oil revenue, may not have had a Permanent Fund, but my goodness did they have optimism and hope about this incredible place where we live. Today, there are some who say we have to pull back, that not only can we not afford new infrastructure, but that we can't even replace a 65 year old school in which every single mechanical system is failing, that is grossly under capacity, and that is so decrepit the bathrooms have been closed, kids wear down parkas to stay warm, and sewage spills from leaking pipes onto the playground. I know this much: If our vision for the future of this state is that kids won't even get a school building with a functioning heating system, then the pessimists will indeed prevail.

I think the future is a great deal brighter. Objectively, yes of course we can afford to replace this decrepit school building. And we can afford to make other time-sensitive investments across Anchorage. Don't let the pessimists bully us into a self-imposed penury, a death spiral of declining investment, retreat, and ever-disappearing jobs. We should embrace the same optimism that animated the Statehood generation. Alaska can grow, will grow, if we invest in and develop our human and natural capital. Sure, we could walk away from this place, but why? The future holds so much promise: for this neighborhood, for Anchorage, for our whole state.

It starts with outstanding public education. In terms of this school bond, from Chugiak to Downtown to South Anchorage. Anyone who visits an Anchorage School District classroom cannot fail to be inspired by our students, and by the incredible work of our teachers, principals, and parent-teacher organizations. Let's pass this school bond, making critical school repairs across Anchorage, and replacing the crumbling building at Inlet View. It's not just a construction project. It's a values statement, an investment, and a commitment to a prosperous future.

Zack Fields represents Downtown Anchorage in the state legislature, and in that role learned about and was inspired by years of work by the Inlet View PTA to get the school building replaced.

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