Anchorage schools won’t be required to play the national anthem and state song, “Alaska’s Flag,” every month, the Anchorage School Board decided Tuesday night.
The seven-member school board narrowly rejected the proposed requirements in a 4-3 vote after about an hour of public testimony and board discussion that grew emotional at times.
The proposal came from board member Dave Donley, who argued that regularly playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” and state song would build unity and instill more patriotism in students. Board members who voted against the proposal said current school district policy is sufficient, the Pledge of Allegiance is said daily and civics is taught. Some also said the board had wasted too much time on the proposal, instead of focusing that time on improving academics and closing achievement gaps.
“There’s not a chance I could vote for something like this. It does not advance student learning, we’re not going to help kids get jobs or go to college, this is one little thing,” said board member Alisha Hilde before voting against the proposal. “The greatest opposition is the amount of time and energy we have invested, and not been focusing on children.”
Donley countered that he believed his proposal did focus on students.
“There is a clear position by many in the United States that our public schools have lost their way,” he said. “Many people have a perception that our schools no longer teach patriotism, they no longer have the same value set that made this country great, and along with teaching all the bad things that have happened over the course of the history of the United States, we ought to emphasize some good things also, such as basic culture.”
The Anchorage School District currently requires all schools conduct the Pledge of Allegiance daily. Students and staff who choose not to participate “must demonstrate respect and courtesy, whether standing or seated,” district regulations say.
There isn’t a specific district policy on the national anthem and state song, though both are woven into school curricula, according to district officials. The national anthem is often played before sporting events and at the start of some student assemblies, principals have said.
Under Donley’s proposal, all schools would have to play the national anthem and state song during the first week of the school year and at least monthly after that. The proposal would not have required students to sing the songs. Students not participating “must maintain a respectful silence and not disrupt the ceremony,” the proposal said.
Before the school board’s vote Tuesday night, about a dozen people testified. Most told the board that they opposed the proposal, including Kevin McGee, president of Anchorage's chapter of the NAACP.
“Please be advised that the NAACP is not opposed to the national anthem, but let’s be clear about what should be important in the Anchorage School District,” said McGee, a U.S. Army veteran. “The purpose of attending public school is not to show patriotism, love for, or devotion to one’s country, but to learn the fundamentals of education: reading, writing, math, etc.”
McGee also underscored that the third verse of the national anthem, while infrequently sung, is considered discriminatory to some. Wilbert Mickens, a U.S. Air Force veteran, made the same point. He sang part of the national anthem to the board including the line: “No refuge could save the hireling and slave / From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave.”
“I don’t think that it’s going to bring much unity when it comes to our students’ concerns,” he said of the verse. “Teach the whole history. Same melody, different words.”
Marnie Hartill told board members that they should be ashamed for wasting tax dollars on the proposal, including the surveying of principals. Instead, the board should ask how principals address teacher quality and retention, and discuss a list of other issues, she said.
“We want to talk about ceremonies and songs, but we won’t talk about the hard facts of what causes poor attendance and what is the leading cause of dropouts,” said Hartill, a teacher who said she was representing herself.
Supporters of Donley’s proposal told the board Tuesday that the national anthem and state song are important and relevant and present learning opportunities.
Rick Smith, a retired teacher, told the board that at Chugiak’s Birchwood ABC Elementary School students said the pledge and sang a patriotic song each morning, and he believed that contributed to the school’s success.
“We had a culture in the building that started with being an American,” he said.
But Shanone Tejada, a senior at Steller Secondary School, told board members that patriotism shouldn’t be measured by singing the national anthem or saying the pledge.
“Singing songs and reciting words do not make us patriotic, what makes every individual of society patriotic is standing up for what is right and just, fighting for the rule of law, and defending the freedom that some are still seeking,” he said
A flurry of board comments followed public testimony.
Board member Andy Holleman said he supported Donley’s proposal because students should know the words of the pledge, national anthem and state flag song. It sets a minimum expectation, he said, and he didn’t think it would have a huge impact since many schools already play the songs.
“Repetition doesn’t teach patriotism, it teaches the words, and that’s part of what we do,” he said.
Board member Margo Bellamy said she didn’t think the board should codify the playing of the national anthem and state song.
“I do not believe our students and staff should be mandated to rotely listen to any song, but be actively and academically engaged in curricular and other activities to help them learn our country’s history,” she said.
Bellamy voted against the proposal along with board members Hilde, Deena Mitchell and Starr Marsett, board president. Board members Donley, Holleman and Elisa Vakalis voted in favor of the proposal.