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UPDATED: In Palin's Backyard: The Energy Crisis and Rural Alaskan Schools

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin used yesterday's vice presidential debate to stress her expertise with energy. But it seems she has an energy crisis back home that's hitting rural, and urban, schools particularly hard.

Earlier this week, the superintendent of Anchorage's school district and the city's mayor sent a letter to Gov. Palin, urging her not to "stand by and tolerate the deterioration of rural Alaska." Residents of Alaska's small villages and cities are fleeing their rural communities—and their schools—for urban Anchorage, where gas, heating fuel, and food are cheaper and social services are easier to get. In some rural areas, gas has hit $11 a gallon. In the nearly two months since the school year began, this exodus has resulted in an additional 500 Native Alaskan students for the Anchorage school district, which has had to hire an additional 18 teachers. Unexpected, mid-year growth like this is tough for school districts, which build their budgets months before school starts and have little recourse to gain additional money during the school year.

At the same time, Alaskan schools serving those rural communities are seeing their enrollments plummet. The Sept. 29 letter points out that Bristol Bay School District has seen its enrollment drop by about 20 percent and has reached a 20-year low this year of just 140 students.

Anchorage's superintendent and mayor urge Gov. Palin to set up a local, state, and federal task force to address this issue. On a national stage, this is an opportunity for Gov. Palin to call attention to the plight of rural America and its schools—which are so often at the center of small town America.

UPDATED 10/9: In an Oct. 8 letter of response, Palin said she would direct her rural sub-cabinet to more closely examine the issue. Her letter indicated that while high fuel prices have not been found be to be a definite cause of migration, that “they could be a signficiant factor.” She added that her energy coordinator was working on a plan to help Alaskans cope with high energy costs.

Rural schools, in particular, struggle with low graduation rates, recruiting teachers in hard-to-staff subjects, and offering their students a wide range of courses, especially at the high school level. Even though about 22 percent of the nation's public school students attend schools in communities with populations less than 2,500, problems facing rural schools have been largely overlooked by the presidential candidates, a fact that hasn't escaped advocates for rural education.

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