Education commissioner's firing followed refusal to spend for religious school

Mike Hanley lost Alaska's top education job for the same reason that makes sustained school improvement difficult: political interference.

Vague explanations for Hanley's firing, and the nonrenewal of Ed Graff's contract as superintendent of schools in Anchorage, leave parents wondering why skilled and well-liked administrators lost their jobs. In my next column I'll address the Graff issue.

Hanley, Alaska's commissioner of education and early development, ran afoul of Sen. Mike Dunleavy, R-Wasilla, after Hanley refused to steer state correspondence school money to Holy Rosary Academy, a Catholic school in Anchorage.

Dunleavy is chairman of the Senate Education Committee. He had been on Hanley's case for not giving more control to the State Board of Education, a group mostly appointed by former Gov. Sean Parnell. Hanley felt he worked for Gov. Bill Walker as well as the board. Dunleavy told him the board was his only boss, Hanley said.

In the last Legislature, Dunleavy tried to change the Alaska Constitution to allow public money to go to private and religious schools. He didn't get enough votes for that, but did insert a provision in law allowing state correspondence funding to be paid to religious institutions for nonreligious materials.

The state pays districts, including Mat-Su Borough School District, to provide correspondence programs. Mat-Su uses some of that money to provide a stipend of about $2,500 a year to parents for outside classes and materials.

Mat-Su Superintendent Deena Paramo said that last year Hanley turned down the district's request to let correspondence students use correspondence money at Holy Rosary. The department letter said he was acting on advice from the attorney general, in line with the Alaska Constitution.


State board chairman James Fields and first vice chair Sue Hull said Dunleavy's disagreement with that decision was only one of his problems with Hanley, which weighed in their opinion that Hanley should go.

"It may have been the straw that broke the camel's back, but that certainly wasn't the only thing where there has been sideways confrontation," said Hull, a Fairbanks apartment owner and manager.

Dunleavy declined to comment for this column.

Hull, a Republican, said Dunleavy, like the board, wanted Hanley to push back harder against federal restrictions to allow more freedom for schools. She felt Hanley was not aggressive enough in pushing into a "new era" in which schools could resist government mandates.

One of those issues related to the state's troubled Alaska Measures of Progress standardized test. Hull said some board members and superintendents wanted to ditch the test immediately and allow schools to use their own tests.

Hanley wasn't sure he could do that legally and wanted to try to fix AMP, developed under a five-year, $25 million contract with the University of Kansas. He ended up cancelling the contract, but ordered the test to be administered one more time this year.

Hanley said he has a responsibility to obey state and federal law, but was moving to explore more flexibility in a new federal education law. He said his formal evaluations with the board had been positive and he was unaware of a new direction the board wanted in pushing against legal mandates.

Board chairman Fields, a Libertarian Party member and businessman from Glennallen, is a friend of Gov. Walker. He said the board never voted to ask for Hanley's removal. However, when he met with Walker and Hanley, he told the governor the majority of the board lacked confidence in the commissioner.

Walker told me he fired Hanley after receiving phone calls from Fields and other board members and the meeting last week.

"I listened to that and honored their wishes," he said. "It was a change at their request and I chose to work with the board on that."

Fields denied that he asked Walker to fire Hanley. But Hanley thought that was what happened, too, and that he didn't resist because it had clearly been thought through.

Hanley came to the commissioner's office in 2011 from the principal's office at Kincaid Elementary School in Anchorage, something like being promoted from lieutenant to general in one step. Although he had not been involved in politics, Parnell knew him through his political family, which includes his brother, Mark Hanley, a Republican member of the state House in the 1990s.

Mike Hanley had started his career as a classroom teacher at Gladys Wood Elementary School, beside Ed Graff. They were also both principals at Kasuun Elementary, first Graff and then Hanley.

Carol Comeau, who worked with them as superintendent in Anchorage over 12 years, said they were both exceptional classroom teachers, leaders and administrators. She was saddened that they had lost their jobs.

"In both cases, I think they're honest, ethical leaders who took their positions because they thought they could make a difference for kids in Anchorage, and across Alaska, and I think they did," Comeau said.

She said Hanley ended an adversarial relationship between school districts and the state, transforming the department from a compliance organization into one that supports districts.

I know Hanley well because I worked as the part-time director of a group that advocates for struggling schools, especially in rural Alaska, called Citizens for the Educational Advancement of Alaska's Children. I left that position in November to join Alaska Dispatch News.


In 2011, Hanley and I sat across a table with our lawyers — his was Attorney General John Burns — and settled a pair of lawsuits between CEAAC and the state that dated back to the 1990s. The settlements were part of Hanley's work ushering in a new, more positive relationship between rural and urban districts.

As a former insider, I would leave it to readers to weigh my biases. I still support public education and the need to strengthen schools for disadvantaged rural students.

Mike Hanley was one of the most talented and committed people I've met in government. I would trust him to be in charge of my kid's school, because he obviously cares.

In fact, when I asked him his future plans, he said he'd be happy to return to being a principal.

Mike Dunleavy and the state board — them I don't trust nearly as much.

Charles Wohlforth's column appears three times weekly. A product of the Anchorage School District, he currently has two children attending public school in Anchorage. Email him: cwohlforth@alaskadispatch.com.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

Charles Wohlforth

Charles Wohlforth was an Anchorage Daily News reporter from 1988 to 1992 and wrote a regular opinion column from 2015 until 2019. He served two terms on the Anchorage Assembly. He is the author of a dozen books about Alaska, science, history and the environment. More at wohlforth.com.