House committee adopts softened school intervention bill

Austin Baird

JUNEAU -- The perennial debate over how to fund schools is at the forefront of discussions on education policy in Juneau this legislative session, but another issue has also taken up time in the House and Senate education committees: school intervention.

What that phrase means depends on who you ask, but there are a few certainties.

The concept of the state giving extra help to struggling districts dates back at least a few decades, but the state took a more direct approach after the Legislature responded to a case that started in 2004 and ended an $18 million settlement that is currently pending legislative approval.

Then state-court Judge Sharon Gleason found in Moore v. Alaska that the state was deficient in its oversight of some rural Alaska schools that failed to teach even the most basic reading and math skills, let alone state-required courses for a high school diploma to be accredited. Procedures described by Gleason in a few opinions are treated as the standard for the state to avoid future legal battles along the same grounds.

In 2008, the state strengthened the state Education Department's ability to play a role in districts that are not up to par by explicitly describing how the state should interact with struggling districts. So-called content coaches could be assigned to provide teachers on-site training. Outside the school year, even more training opportunities were available in Anchorage. The state also reserved the ability to appoint a trustee that could modify curriculum without school board approval while also recommending structural changes to the superintendent.

Since the rules were enacted, five districts have been placed under intervention status. Two have made it off intervention status, and the Yupiit School District is the only ever to have been appointed a trustee.

Beyond that, views of the process vary wildly.

House Education Chair Alan Dick started discussion of school intervention this session with a plea to repeal the process completely. But an amended version of his bill adopted by his committee Friday shows a change of approach.

The new version of HB256, instead of pulling the state out entirely, would have the state consider input from local educators and communities when helping struggling districts improve. He also changes the term "intervention" to "restoration."

House Education Chair Alan Dick, R-Stony River, has said the current process of intervention into struggling schools is akin to a dictatorial-style state takeover that neglects local input. He initially called for an outright repeal of the process.

Senate Education Committee Co-Chairs Kevin Meyer and Joe Thomas have said certain aspects of the intervention process need refining, but they do not see the efforts as needing to be completely scrapped. A bill in line with that, SB194, has moved through the Senate Education Committee and awaits a hearing in Finance.

Education Department Commissioner Mike Hanley lands closer to the side of the Senate proposal, calling the system a good but imperfect attempt to fulfill the Alaska Constitution's promise of a quality education. He said amendments adopted by the House Education Committee on Friday are more palatable than earlier versions of the House bill sponsored by Dick.

Hanley, who voiced concerns with Dick's original proposal, says he feels more comfortable with the changes because he considers it to be a more measured approach.

"If we don't step in, we're violating Gleason's decision, and we're violating a moral responsibility," Hanley said. "Both bills now address the best ways to support low-performing districts, and that's a good thing ... now we need to agree on exactly what that means for the (Education) Department."

HB256 has another hearing scheduled Monday.

Associated Press