Local students put politicians to the test
Students from Mirror Lake and Gruening gathered with nine other Anchorage School District middle school students at the AARP Alaska forum at the Wilda Marston Theatre on April 30.
The students were granted the rare opportunity to question governor and U.S. Senate candidates on topics pertaining to the economy, education, voter identification and the Affordable Health Care Act.
Democrat Byron Mallott, independent Bill Walker and Republican Gov. Sean Parnell kicked off the event.
Each candidate had two minutes for opening statements, one minute for closing statements plus one minute to answer each question.
Mirror Lake and Gruening Middle School students led off with a question on education: “In middle school we have seen class size increase, the number of teachers decrease, and the loss of electives. All we hear is cut, cut, cut. What do you plan to do to fix future funding of education in Alaska?” read off moderator and AARP president Jeannine English.
Parnell answered first.
“I could stand up here and tell you that since I’ve been in office education funding has increased but you aren’t seeing it, are you?” he said, adding that the state needs to create more opportunities for young people.
“We need to have an economy where we put a higher priority on education,” Walker said, “We need to make more money in Alaska and develop more resources.”
Mallot answered that education is “the most significant investment we can make. We must allow our schools to grow and not diminish.”
Walker received a scattering of applause for the second question, when he replied that he would “absolutely” accept Medicaid expansion.
“It’s something that’s going to supply healthcare to over 40,000 Alaskans,” he said.
Mallot echoed the sentiment, stating an obligation to lead a healthy state.
Parnell disagreed. The goal of the Affordable Healthcare Act, he said, is to make healthcare more accessible and more affordable.
“You folks as middle school students are going to be paying the debt for the Medicaid expansion for today,” he said. “We aren’t going to be paying for it, you are.”
Clark Middle School students asked if Alaskans should be required to show photo identification in order to vote.
All three candidates opposed the idea, citing the difficulties rural communities might encounter attempting to access such identification.
After questions on infrastructure and declining oil production, it was the Senate candidates’ turn and Republicans Joe Miller, Mead Treadwell and Dan Sullivan took to the stage; incumbent and lone Democrat Mark Begich was unable to attend the forum.
The candidates spoke about honoring military veterans and Medicaid availability, yet the question that appeared to spark middle school students’ attention was that on the minimum wage issue, formulated by Polaris students.
All three candidates voiced opposition to increasing the minimum wage, Sullivan stating that what we need are policies that create jobs, not limit or stifle them, Treadmill saying that a minimum wage increase could “choke us back” and should be decided at the state level.
Miller took an extremely different stance, saying that instead of an increase, we need to focus on core issues.
“A lot of jobs out there are taken up by people who really shouldn’t be competing in our economy,” he said. “When my kids go to Lowe’s and Home Depot and they can’t find a job there, and you’ve got people from outside the country that are working there, those are some of the impacts on wages…When we allow people illegally into this country, we can show statistically that wages go down.”
After the forum wrapped up, Mirror Lake Middle School students discussed the candidates’ answers and attitudes.
“I felt like they were going around the questions,” Ryan Winborg said, adding that he believed that they mostly answered as best they could.
Mark Connelly said that he noticed that the candidates talked a lot about opposition to various issues but didn’t hand out suggestions or solutions.
“It was really talk, talk, talk without the walk, walk, walk,” he said.
Chris Goolsby believed that the candidates answered the photo identification question the most thoroughly, and honestly.
“They did slide around some questions but did answer some others,” he said.
Madison Thompson also felt that the candidates presented vague responses.
“I felt they didn’t really answer,” she said. “I still don’t know what they’ve going to do about education.”
Dalton Lodzins agreed.
“We really need help with the school budget,” he said. “We are the richest state and the budget cuts are crazy. I just really want to know what they’re going to do.”