State, plaintiffs settle rural education lawsuit

$18 MILLION: Schools in line for more money.

Associated PressJanuary 26, 2012 

JUNEAU -- The state agreed Thursday to settle an eight-year case over education quality.

Plaintiffs in the case claimed the state had failed to meet its constitutional obligation to provide an education to schoolchildren.

The settlement, which a judge must still approve, calls for the state to provide $18 million to help boost achievement at the 40 lowest-performing schools. The money would have to be appropriated by the Legislature.

In return, the Citizens for the Educational Advancement of Alaska's Children, or CEAAC, which had been making the legal decisions on behalf of the plaintiffs, would drop its lawsuit.

Education commissioner Michael Hanley said the agreement represents "such a positive step forward for the kids of Alaska and for Alaska in general." Charles Wohlforth, CEAAC's executive director, said it was "an exciting and joyous day."

"After 10 months of negotiations, eight years of litigation, we're finally done with the beginning of the process and ready to implement some programs that we really think are going to be good for kids," Wohlforth said.

In 2007, then-Superior Court Judge Sharon Gleason ruled the state failed to intervene in poorly performing public schools and therefore was wrong to require students to pass a state exit exam to graduate from high school.

Gleason later found that the education department wasn't providing sufficient oversight and help to schools in consistently under-performing districts.

Neither side admitted any liability or wrongdoing in signing the agreement.

Under the settlement, $12 million would go toward such things as teacher retention and remedial efforts to help students pass the high school exit exam. At least $6 million is intended for two-year kindergarten or literacy programs for 4-year-olds or pre-kindergarten-aged children.

The money, if appropriated, would be distributed by the Department of Education working with a six-member committee. A seventh, non-voting member would act as chair.

Districts with the lowest performing schools could apply to receive money. The funding is intended to last for at least three years.

Recipients would have to agree to accountability measures and benchmarks for progress.

About 4,500 students attended the 40 affected schools last year, according to an education department spokesman.

It's the second major education settlement reached under Gov. Sean Parnell's administration. Credit was given in part to new leadership, including Hanley, who became education commissioner last year, and Attorney General John Burns, who resigned earlier this month after just over a year on the job.

Last year, the state agreed to settle a lawsuit that alleged inequities in funding for rural public schools. Terms called for Parnell to seek legislative approval for funding five high-priority school construction projects in rural Alaska over the next four years. Estimates have put the total cost of the projects, which include school renovations and replacements, at nearly $146 million.

In keeping with the agreement, Parnell has requested more than $60 million for new schools in Emmonak and Koliganek in his budget proposal for next year.

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