Stevens: Solutions needed for state’s scholastic woes

Veteran legislator seeks another term to battle enormous problems at K-12, university level, fiscal challenges of pandemic

For years Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, taught history on the Kodiak College campus of the University of Alaska, also serving at times as mayor of the city of Kodiak, mayor of the Kodiak Island Borough and president of the local school board.

“That’s where you learn what your community needs,” said Stevens, who holds two post-graduate degrees from the University of Oregon and managed a seafood processing plant before becoming a university professor.

Now after 20 years in the Legislature, having served first in the House and now in the Senate, Stevens is running again in the Aug. 18 primary, fired by his passion to find solutions for the enormous problems Alaska is facing in education, from K-12 classes to the university level.

“I still think distance learning has possibilities, but to this point it has not been as successful as everyone thought it would be,” Stevens said, in an interview on Monday, July 6, with The Cordova Times. “When you look nationally at what has happened, in testing the kids have not done well. This past year will be sort of a lost year for them. They will have a hard time going to the university. We have so many problems we are facing (in education). That is the main reason I am running again.”

It takes a special person to teach in a distance learning program, something that is not easy to do, Stevens said.

“Tests nationwide have shown this has been a very hard year. There are going to be some problems with special education children working online without a teacher at their side, but we are getting better at it,” he said. “There are also many parents who are not computer literate themselves, so how do they help their students?”

And then there is the teacher shortage, with the state losing so many teachers every year.

Alaskans who study education at the University of Alaska would stay in Alaska, he said. A year ago, January the University of Alaska Anchorage lost accreditation for its education preparation programs, and anyone in Alaska seeking a teaching license must have graduated from a fully accredited program.

Fiscal problems are another issue Stevens said he wants to tackle in the upcoming session.

Oil prices are down and there is way too much inventory out there, plus problems of revenue from the Alaska Permanent Fund, he said. With the Permanent Fund, “we decided we could use 5 percent of market value, that this was the most we could take out and then the fund keeps growing,” he said.

“I don’t want to see us take more than five percent out, but we might have to decide to do that temporarily,” Stevens said. “I want us to have a strong PFD. We are talking about doing a second one (distribution) and I hope we can find the money to do that. With the loss of oil and business taxes, revenues to the state will be severely affected.”

Stevens noted that legislators have cut the budget already by over $1 billion. Still given the loss of jobs and people having trouble paying their rent, mortgages, “everything at once is having an impact on us,” he said. “We have a responsibility to help pick people up.”

In the upcoming August primary, the main issue before voters will be the one on oil, and the credits given to the oil companies, and voters will have to decide on that, he said.

“We have to come to terms on how to deal with revenue,” he said. “One of the biggest decisions we need to make is on an income tax. It has to be on the table.”

“I personally hate to see us have an income tax, but now is the time to talk about it and what will happen if we don’t have that revenue,” Stevens said. “If we are going to be honest, everything has to be on the table, and we have to talk about it.”

On the matter of term limits, Stevens noted that many states have term limits for their legislative bodies and that he has no problem with it.

“It takes a long time to learn how the Legislature works and how to be part of it, but if the public wants it (term limits) that’s okay,” he said.

Stevens also stands firm on use of a binding caucus in the Legislature.

“I joined the binding caucus because it goes good things for my community,” he said. “I get my fair share for my district. If you are not in the binding caucus you will not get the assistance for your community that you want to get.”

With legislative matters, “there has to be a way to come to a conclusion and that way in Alaska has always been in the binding caucus,” he said.