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The Education Session: From Stump Speech to Proposed Policy

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Screenshot of Power-Point  presentation shown at Mondays hearing.
Screenshot of Power-Point presentation shown at Mondays hearing.

On Monday, the legislature took up SB139, Governor Parnell’s omnibus education-reform proposal. A House and Senate Joint Committee on Education listened through an hour-and-a-half long presentation from Commissioner of Education and Early Development Mike Hanley.

The newly unveiled package, described as a collaborative effort prepared by the departments of Early Education and Development, Labor, and Revenue, contains several broad proposals. It would raise the base student allocation – the money the state spends per student – by $85 the first year (2015) and an additional $58 in each of the following two years.

It would also eliminate the High School Graduation Qualifying Examination (HSGQE), a proficiency exam that “measures minimum competencies of essential skills in reading, writing and mathematics,” which students begin taking in the tenth grade. The test is based on standards set by the state. Students would still be required to pass their choice of the ACT, SAT, or WorkKeys (a national standardized test designed to assess graduates’ readiness for the workplace), though, so this is not a wholesale escape from standardized testing. Under the new plan, students could also test out of a class for credit. This would include math, language arts, science, social studies, and foreign language courses. While the intent is to allow students to “advance at their own pace,” critics are concerned that this could amplify “teaching to the test.”

The private sector would be offered tax incentives, encouraging them to assist in students’ education through high school and college scholarships, as well as funding for housing costs at residential (read: boarding) schools.

Recognizing that a minority of jobs go to four-year college graduates, the governor’s proposal also seeks to extend the Technical Vocational Education Program (TVEP), which is set to expire this June. TVEP funds various technical and vocational schools – the two-year post-high school programs we hear so much about during campaign season – around the state.

Finally, the bill would streamline the process of opening charter and boarding schools, allowing an appeals process for charter schools denied approval by local districts and implementing an annual application period for boarding schools. If that sounds complicated and rife with specifics that the legislature will have to untangle and refine, it’s because it really, really is.

The push for charter schools was a big part of Governor Parnell’s “State of the State” speech, in which he declared that we needed to get back to the Alaska Constitution (by changing what it says).

“I am introducing legislation to reform Alaska’s education system by focusing on charter school opportunity,” Parnell said.

That particular component of the omnibus bill, not surprisingly, demanded the bulk of the committee’s attention this week.

Under current law, local school districts are in charge of approving the application of a proposed charter school. So, if a citizen of Anchorage wished to open a charter school, she could gather a group of like-minded partners and form an “academic policy committee,” defined by state statute as “the group designated to supervise the academic operation of a charter school and to ensure the fulfillment of the mission of a charter school.” That group would apply to district school boards – elected by the constituents the charter school would serve – who would approve or deny the application.

“There isn’t clear guidance to what that process looks like or requires, though,” argued Commissioner Hanley, a former ASD teacher. “And if an application is denied at the local level, the process effectively is done.”

Under Parnell’s proposal, there would be a new appeal process. If a local school board denied the application, the academic policy committee could go over the school district’s head, straight to Hanley’s office, where the commissioner could overturn the denial.

“This brings accountability and transparency to the local process,” Hanley said.

Senator Gary Stevens (R-Kodiak), a retired University of Alaska professor, found the statement curious.

I guess that I just don’t quite understand. We, in this state, seem to have a strong belief in local control… and if a local school district decided not to accept an application for a charter school, and now [the state would be] intervening and saying that now we’re going to have it reconsidered, what could you possibly do to force the local school district to have the charter school if they didn’t want it?

Hanley didn’t have a direct answer, instead vaguely recounting that he had heard stories about charter schools being “counseled away from applying because [the school district] probably won’t approve it.”

He would mention this ambiguous counseling again when Representative Paul Seaton (R-Homer) asked if denials were a problem. Seaton said the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District had told him that they had never denied a charter school application.

Hanley said he was not aware of any denials in the state, to date, which begs the question: why codify a mechanism that could result in significant negative consequences for school districts in the future? Each district operates within the confines of their own budget and should retain local control over decisions that impact them.

Representative Harriet Drummond (D-Anchorage) pointed out that a school district might turn down an applicant for financial reasons. If a district is already experiencing fiduciary shortfalls – laying off teachers, dialing back course loads, etc. – and an applicant charter school’s financial plan doesn’t seem manageable within that already tight budget, what happens then?

“If the local school board says no, the department says yes,” Drummond asked, “does the governing of that charter school and the financial responsibility still revert to the local school district which originally said no?”

Hanley expressed the unlikelihood of the scenario, but conceded that the commissioner would be granted that power.

“If the commissioner says ‘we will approve a charter school that the local district has not approved,’ as a member of that school board,” Drummond cautioned, “I would be very reluctant to be forced to supervise and take responsibility for that charter school that I and my fellow school board members had not approved in the first place.”

Drummond served on the Anchorage School Board from 1994-2003.

A state-mandated charter school could drain the overall coffers of the affected school district.

“There won’t be as much money in the budget for those students,” Representative Peggy Wilson (R-Wrangell) summarized, building on Drummond’s concerns. “So, in many instances, the charter school will get more money from the school district and the school, [and] the kids that are left in that school, are going to have less money for instructional activities?”

Hanley was unable to give a “yes” or “no” answer.

The eighteen pages that outline the governor’s proposal have a lot of open questions remaining, going into the sixteenth day of the ninety-day session.

“If we are successful at real reform and more new funding, our children will benefit,” Governor Parnell said to start of the session. But there’s nothing automatic about getting from his optimistic rhetoric to the green pastures of success for future generations. One would hope that, in the time between, the legislature receives a much clearer picture and a lot better answers about specifics before they’re tasked with voting “yes” or “no.”