The Alaska Department of Education and Early Development is pursuing agreements with Alaska Native tribal governments to operate K-12 schools, and it wants community input to help create a new bill.
That bill, which Gov. Mike Dunleavy plans to introduce during the upcoming legislative session, would set up a legal framework so interested tribal governments could run public schools in Alaska. To do so, the tribes would enter into an agreement, called a compact, with the state.
It would be a new model of education in Alaska, according to Alaska education officials.
“This is as much about empowerment as it is about schooling,” said Sandra Kowalski, a longtime educator who lives in Fairbanks and sits on Alaska’s state board of education.
Kowalski and other compacting supporters say they hope the state’s educational system will improve if tribal governments are given the choice to have more control over schools.
The education department is holding a series of meetings this month and in early 2020 to hear Alaskans’ comments and questions on compacting, said Joel Isaak, tribal liaison at the education department.
“This is a new thing, and we want to make sure we’re going about it in a way that engages the public and our tribes,” said Isaak, who is Dena’ina Athabascan and lives in Soldotna.
These public schools “would offer a unique, culturally rich combination of Western and millennia-old tribal educational models,” according to the state education department. The schools would be open to all students.
Compacting advocates say the new model could mean more culturally relevant lessons and more community involvement in classrooms, which could lead to better student performance in a state that has long struggled to close achievement gaps.
“I believe if our students see themselves in the educational system, and their values and their cultural beliefs are represented in their learning and their school, they have a better sense of achieving in life and our academic outcomes will also improve,” Kowalski said.
Kowalski, who is Inupiaq, also chairs of the board’s tribal compacting committee. For a long time, she said, Alaska Native communities have wanted more control over education.
The idea of compacting gained momentum during Alaska’s Education Challenge, a state-led effort to rethink public education in the face of dismal statistics such as chronic absenteeism, low scores on standardized tests and high rates of teacher turnover.
The effort started under former Gov. Bill Walker and yielded several recommendations, including tribal compacting.
Compacting isn’t a cost-saving measure, said Niki Tshibaka, assistant commissioner at the education department. It’s an effort to improve academic outcomes, from school attendance to dropout rates.
It could also help revitalize cultures and languages of Alaska Native people, according to an informational document from the state education department.
Isaak spent two years researching tribal compacting starting in 2016 before joining the education department as its tribal liaison. Over the past year or so, he has talked to many Alaskans about compacting, he said.
“We have the potential for some pretty profound opportunities for our communities and for our kids, and that’s no small thing,” he said.
In the past, some have raised concerns about tribes’ capacity to run schools and have posed questions about how new governance would transform education in Alaska.
Big questions also remain on the specifics of how the education agreements might work, such as how the teaching jobs would be filled and how the curriculum would be chosen.
That’s all part of the ongoing discussions, Isaak said.
While other states have tribally controlled schools, overseen by the federal Bureau of Indian Education, Washington is the only U.S. state where the government has entered into compacts with tribes to run schools.
In Washington, the schools receive funding directly from the state. They still must follow state academic standards and the state standardized testing schedule, but have more flexibility with curriculum.
In an interview last week, Dunleavy said he believes entering into compacts with tribal governments in Alaska could help with academics, including having students hit certain benchmarks in reading and math.
“I think this is an opportunity to involve the tribes in the educational process of their tribal members and, again, I am optimistic that we may see some better outcomes than we currently have,” said Dunleavy, a former educator.
Dunleavy said he expected to unveil other education initiatives over the next several weeks, but he declined to discuss specifics.
In a letter to the state board of education, the First Alaskans Institute said it supports compacting for education. It’s a step in the right direction after the state’s shameful history of educating Alaska Native children through boarding and mission schools, said the letter from Liz Medicine Crow, the institute’s president and chief executive, and Ayyu Qassataq, the vice president.
“A true transformation of the system is critical to reverse the harms that have been inflicted on Native peoples, and to light a path to a richer educational experience that will benefit all Alaskans,” the letter said.
Isaak said he’s encouraged by the feedback the education department has received from across the state.
“We want to really hear from the community and the public about their ideas, their concerns, their recommendations and their questions,” Tshibaka said.
The department is holding its next meeting, a one-hour informational call on compacting, at 1 p.m. Friday. The dial-in number is 1-650-479-3207 with access code 800 113 529.
There will also be meetings at Cook Inlet Native Head Start in Anchorage at 5:30 p.m. Dec. 13 and at the Morris Thompson Cultural Visitor Center in Fairbanks at 2 p.m. Dec. 14.