The Alaska House's Sustainable Education Task Force concluded its final meeting Monday in much the same mix of self-approval and dissent that marked its report to the Legislature last year.
Its two legislator co-chairs, Reps. Lynn Gattis and Tammie Wilson, both Republicans, praised the task force's work for generating suggestions to reduce education spending at a time of state fiscal calamity. The third legislator on the panel, Rep. Charisse Millett, an Anchorage Republican, spoke of the need to use cold-weather design in school construction.
Anchorage Chamber of Commerce President Andrew Halcro, a former Republican legislator and one of five citizen members of the panel, described the task force as a big missed opportunity beset by poor organization and structured to achieve preordained results.
The task force was set up by a House resolution in 2013. It called on the eight-member task force to study education funding, classroom accountability, whether schooling prepared students for the workplace, and whether the Legislature was being efficient in the way it paid for school transportation and energy costs.
At the meeting in Anchorage on Monday afternoon with state education officials attending by teleconference, several task force members expressed concern when they learned that testing standards were flexible and didn't peg students at a precise grade levels, such as third-grade reading.
Wilson, from North Pole, was particularly unhappy to hear the state officials talk of moving the point at which students could be said to be below grade. Wilson said standards should be statewide and clear, not a matter of "local control."
"If we are not making sure that districts are aligned with our standards, they're not going to be successful in the testing. Are we teaching to the test? Absolutely we are. We want our kids to know certain things at each grade level," Wilson said. "The state is responsible to make sure that our children are learning at a certain rate and putting in the right intervention if it's not happening."
Halcro, attending by teleconference as a representative of the business community, said the panel was misplacing its concern when the results of testing showed some students and their schools were below standards. Rather than focus on "outcomes," he said, the Legislature needed to attend to "inputs" — the causes of below-average performance, such as missing parental involvement, lack of proficiency in English and transiency.
"When you look at reading scores for third grade, you see that 18.5 percent are below proficient in 2014," Halcro said. "That doesn't tell me anything. It tells me what the output is, but I don't know what the input is. Who are these kids that are showing up? Are they ready to learn? … This is the problem with education. Everybody wants to point to the outcomes, but nobody wants to take the time to say, who and in what kind of condition are these students showing up for school?"
The panel decided to add several issues to the interim report it delivered to the Legislature last January, when it called on new investments in technology and expanding choices in public education. The panel will additionally urge that districts join forces to increase their purchasing and contracting power for everything from textbooks to school buses. Wilson said she also would include her concerns on student testing in the final report.
Wilson and others said many of the original recommendations, including those calling for salary studies, showed up in the big education bill that passed last spring. Wilson also agreed with Millett's suggestion that instead of appointing a new task force to continue studying education, the Legislature's standing committees on education should meet year-round.
Halcro, in an interview, said the Legislature, including the panel's members, largely ignored many of the recommendations last year.
"After we did those recommendations, they went down to Juneau and did exactly the opposite," Halcro said. "One of our recommendations last year was that we were going to increase choices within the public school system, and the first thing they did when they got down there was introduce legislation for (private education) vouchers."