Legal opinion for Anchorage School District raises concerns about proposed education ballot measure

A lawyer for the Anchorage School District is raising concerns about a proposed education ballot measure, describing it in a recently released legal opinion as a “well-intentioned but poorly-executed effort to address perceived problems with Alaska’s public education system.”

If enacted, the ballot measure would amend state law to provide guidelines about education issues, from class size to teacher pay to curricula.

Its supporters are currently collecting signatures to put the ballot measure, known as the Alaska Students’ Educational Bill of Rights, in front of voters next year. They say the measure would ensure Alaska students have access to high-quality education from pre-elementary programs to college.

But Anchorage School Board President Starr Marsett said while she agrees with the goals in the proposal, she has concerns that they are “unfunded mandates.” She’s also concerned that the ballot measure, if approved, would strip away authority from local school boards, she said.

“When I see something that I have concerns about, I have to bring it forward,” she said.

Marsett and Anchorage School District Superintendent Deena Bishop agreed to have a lawyer review the ballot measure.

The resulting six-page, preliminary legal opinion, by Anchorage attorney Matt Singer with the law firm Holland & Knight, was posted online with the school board’s agenda for its Tuesday evening meeting.


The review says the ballot measure fails to recognize the roles of the state education department and local school districts and is “imprecise and vague.” It has no funding mechanism, creating uncertainty about who’s charged with paying for schools to meet the guidelines, the opinion says.

“The best that can be said about the proposed ballot initiative is that it is well-intentioned but ill-considered,” it says.

An initiative group, Alaskans for Excellent Public Education, is backing the ballot measure. Supporters include Alaska’s National Education Association teachers union and the Alaska Parent Teacher Association.

Anyone who believes the measure includes unfunded mandates misunderstands it, Scott Kendall, attorney for the initiative group, wrote in an email Tuesday.

“Contrary to putting any mandate on local school districts, the Bill of Rights attempts to compel state bodies to make funding and policy decisions the right way — by putting the outcomes of students first, and by using the best available data to reach those decisions,” wrote Kendall, who was chief of staff to former Gov. Bill Walker.

For too long, he wrote, support for education has been left to politics.

A statement from the Anchorage School District said the proposed ballot measure draws attention to key priorities in K-12 education, and to pre-elementary programs.

“Yet, the bill could be improved by incorporating quantifiable outcomes for students and addressing the issue of K-12 technology and connectivity throughout Alaska in the same way it does for the University of Alaska,” it said.

Marsett said the Anchorage School Board wasn’t consulted before the ballot measure was drafted.

The school board was scheduled to discuss the legal opinion at its Tuesday evening meeting. It ran out of time, however, and will bring it up at a later meeting, Marsett said.

The board won’t take an official position on the proposed ballot measure, she said.

Voters, she said, “need to look at all the information, pros and cons, and make up their own minds.”

Alan Brown, a school district spokesman, said he didn’t have information Tuesday on the cost of the legal opinion. The district has a retainer agreement with the law firm, he said.

The Association of Alaska School Boards had not taken a position on the ballot measure by Tuesday, executive director Norm Wooten said.

The University of Alaska Board of Regents also had not taken a position on the measure, according to UA spokeswoman Robbie Graham. Graham said UA generally supports the ballot measure’s goals to elevate the importance of education and ensure Alaskans have access to quality education.

So far, Alaskans for Excellent Public Education has collected more than 15,000 signatures, according to Kendall. They need 28,501 signatures by Jan. 20 to qualify for the 2020 ballot.

Tegan Hanlon

Tegan Hanlon was a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News between 2013 and 2019. She now reports for Alaska Public Media.