As Alaska lawmakers continue to deliberate on how best to fund the state’s public schools, Gov. Mike Dunleavy has repeatedly touted a national study published last fall that ranks Alaska’s charter schools as No. 1 in the nation, in contrast to other public schools in the state.
Dunleavy has used that study to back his education priorities: Asked last week during a news conference what it would take for him to pass an education funding package, Dunleavy said, “We’re going to support things that work well, like charter schools.”
Charter schools are tuition-free, independently run but publicly-funded schools that families choose, often through a lottery process with lengthy waitlists. In Alaska, there are 31 charter schools, mostly in the state’s urban areas. They operate under a contract with a local school board.
The governor has previously said he would veto any education bill passed by the Legislature that simply increases public school funding and doesn’t include a plan to establish more charter schools, among other provisions. He has also said that Alaska charter schools “crushed” other local public schools in test scores.
In his State of the State speech last month, Dunleavy said, “This past November, research from Harvard confirmed that Alaska’s charter school system is the best in the country. That’s right. You heard correctly. Alaska’s charter school system is leading the nation. This fact should be a cause for celebration.”
But the study, published in November, is drawing scrutiny from Alaska lawmakers, school officials and researchers — including many who are pushing to increase the state’s Base Student Allocation — who expressed concern that that national study could have an outsized impact on state education policy despite its small sample size and other limitations.
“I am concerned that we overreach on this conclusion that charter schools are the solution for improving school performance, rather than taking a hard look at why” some schools are performing so well, said Diane Hirshberg, director of the Alaska Institute of Social and Economic Research.
The study tracks how a relatively small number of students performed on one test over a decade — a little over 2,400 students who took the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, between 2009 and 2019. Alaska student scores account for less than 2% of the study’s data.
In interviews this week, researchers and school officials pointed out the uniqueness of Alaska’s charter school students compared to Lower 48 peers, which they say makes apples-to-apples comparisons between states difficult.
They also noted demographic differences in Alaska’s broader student population when compared to charter school students, and described in-state barriers to accessing charter schools: In Anchorage, for example, no public buses transport students to schools, while some don’t offer free or reduced-cost school lunches.
Study author questioned by lawmakers
Paul Peterson, who teaches government and public policy at Harvard, traveled to Alaska last week to testify before members of the Alaska Legislature about his research.
Peterson said during committee hearings Wednesday that Alaska’s charter school results surprised him: Some of the other top performers in the study — New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York and Florida — are known for having among the best charter schools in the country, he said, but not Alaska.
The results were stunning from a statistical standpoint, Peterson told the House Education Committee: The average performance of an Alaska charter school student was one year’s worth of learning higher than the average U.S. charter school student.
In contrast, Alaska’s non-charter public schools rank low overall — “more or less the bottom” of the pack, he said. That disparity stood out to him.
“Usually when you do research, you get what you expected, any you don’t do anything more than confirm the obvious. This is not that,” he said.
But Peterson faced questions Wednesday from legislators who asked why his study’s results don’t align with other national rankings of state-by-state charter school performance, and whether it’s possible to draw conclusions based on such a small sampling of student scores.
Kenai Peninsula Republican Sen. Jesse Bjorkman wondered about the sample size of the students who take the national test each year included in the study.
“From my experience teaching middle school, a very small group of students at a school each semester takes (that) test, if any,” he said.
Bethel Democratic Rep. CJ McCormick wondered if the author had considered Alaska’s geography and the relative concentration of charter schools in urban areas, raising the issue of access and equity.
“There’s only two charter schools in all of the Bush,” he said. “I’m just curious if that factored at all into the research that you did.”
Anchorage Democratic Sen. Löki Tobin, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, questioned the conclusions Peterson was drawing about students of color in Alaska given the limitations of the study’s data.
“I have a difficult time understanding how you might be able to make that presumption when even (the National Assessment of Educational Progress) itself as a statewide test doesn’t have data on Black student performance, because the sample size is not significant enough,” she said.
Peterson said the results were adjusted for demographic differences including race and ethnicity, and that they appeared to be consistent for most students.
“I am showing that it is a more general phenomenon than what some people might want to say would be the explanation,” he said.
When asked by legislators how to interpret or apply the results of his study in Alaska, Peterson repeatedly said that was up to Alaska public officials and lawmakers, not him.
“The work we’ve done here is to show that there’s a level of performance in Alaska that’s not been recognized previously, and there’s something about the Alaska charter sector that’s worth thinking about. But why exactly that is, that is something that requires more study,” he said.
Hirshberg, ISER director and a professor of education policy at the University of Alaska Anchorage, said in an interview she thinks drawing conclusions about student performance is complicated by the makeup of Alaska’s charter schools, which are unique from other states.
The small proportion of Alaska students who attend charter schools “are likely not representative of the broader population,” she said. Many schools have student bodies that skew wealthier and white. The several Alaska charter schools that serve mostly lower-income students are “Indigenous-run,” Hirshberg said — which also sets them apart from schools in the Lower 48 that don’t have similar schools, and makes it harder to compare them.
Those schools “are grounded in Indigenous ways of teaching and learning” — including the Ayaprun Elitnaurvik Yup’ik Immersion school in Bethel — “using place-based methodologies and strategies grounded in the culture of the children,” which could be why those schools are so successful, she said.
She said it’s also generally difficult to compare students of similar demographics who opt in to charter schools because of the level of parental commitment the schools require.
There are also “vast swaths of the state where students have absolutely no choice” in where they go to school, she said, noting that for much of rural Alaska, the only options are attending a local village school or getting home-schooled.
The majority of Alaska’s charter schools are located in urban centers, and even those families have fewer options than students in the Lower 48, who often attend private schools if that’s within reach.
In Anchorage, school board member Kelly Lessens noted that the makeup of the city’s charter schools generally skews less diverse than the overall student body.
In 2017, white students made up about 42% of the district’s student body — but accounted for 62% of all charter school students in Anchorage at the time, according to district data. By 2023, those proportions had barely changed: This school year, white students made up 40% of the school district but 60% of the district’s charter schools.
Lessens and Hirshberg both noted that Alaska’s charter school demographics differ from much of the Lower 48. In Alaska, 64% of the state’s nearly 8,000 charter school students were white, according to data from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
Looking at charter schools around the country those numbers were nearly reversed — just 29% of charter school students nationwide are white: “This report, in my opinion, compares Alaska’s apples to the rest of the nation’s oranges,” Lessens said.
Lessens said she believed that in Anchorage, some disparities in who attends charter schools can be explained by access issues.
“I’m aware that there are barriers to participating in our public schools. One is that (school bus) transportation is not provided,” she said. “Some of our (charter) schools do not have kitchens, so they can’t access free or reduced lunches, which can be a barrier.”
Grant Robinson, a spokesman for Dunleavy, said in an emailed statement that is up to local school boards to implement travel options and food programs for students.
He wrote that “there are many examples of charter schools that do offer transportation,” and at least one charter school in Anchorage — the Alaska Native Cultural Charter School — offers a food program.
“Right now, there is more demand from parents and students for charter schools than there is availability,” Robinson said. “Alaska must increase the availability of charter schools so that families can choose a public education pathway that will be the most effective for their children.”
Dunleavy said in his news conference last week he believed the claims about Alaska’s charter schools succeeding because they have more privileged students were unfounded.
“Our charter schools are actually doing better because of kids that aren’t white,” he said. “That’s what the research says.”
The conversations around charter schools — which account for 30 of the state’s approximately 500 public schools — come at a time when school administrators across the state have said they are facing a budget crisis.
The state’s per-pupil education funding formula, called the Base Student Allocation, has not been substantially raised since 2017. Education advocates say a $350-million-per-year increase is needed to make up for losses from inflation.
At his news conference last week, Dunleavy said he believed that the Harvard study was a cause for celebration, and that increasing the number of charter schools in Alaska was an answer to the state’s education woes.
“You would think you would hear parade music and people dancing in the streets,” he said.
Dunleavy has backed a House Republican proposal that has drawn intense pushback from education advocates that would give the power to authorize new charter schools to a statewide board appointed solely by the governor, in addition to local school districts.
In a lengthy statement emailed Thursday, NEA-Alaska president Tom Klaameyer, speaking for the union representing Alaska educators, criticized Dunleavy’s support of that proposal and focus on the Harvard study.
“Gov. Dunleavy used his press release to sing the praises of a single study and to promote his plans for a charter school takeover in Alaska,” he wrote. “I share Governor Dunleavy’s excitement about Alaska’s charter school students receiving top ranking among all states for their performance; however, I believe that if something is working well, don’t alter the very mechanisms that allow it to perform.”
Others involved in Alaska education said they were heartened by the results of the Harvard study, too — but that they hoped more work would be done to determine why the state’s charter schools were performing so well before any major education policy decisions were made based on its findings.
“I welcome the questions that get raised by this,” said Hirshberg. “What concerns me is when we jump to conclusions based on partial information that’s in that study, rather than following the author’s own suggestions that more research needs to be done.”
In a statement, Dunleavy spokesman Robinson disagreed.
“Waiting to increase access to charter schools until more studies are completed is nonsensical and only harms children currently in Alaska’s schools,” he said.