Under the direction of many just re-elected to state government, fourth-graders in Alaska recently became the worst readers in America. In January, we had gone to Juneau and asked legislators about under-performance in the schools. They replied, “That’s for the boroughs and school districts, not us.” Few legislators recalled a court order finding they were responsible for providing public schools that are adequate.
Ten years ago, Judge Sharon Gleason had made the Legislature’s responsibility clear. At the time, several poorly performing school districts had sued the state in Moore v. Alaska. The judge found the state government deficient in its accountability for school performance. She said the state had ignored proven ways for academic improvement, like pre-kindergarten, teacher capacity and research-based instruction.
Looking to the Alaska Constitution, the judge said the Legislature, not the school districts or the state education department, is responsible for the public school system. She pointed out that school districts are agents of the Legislature. She said the Legislature is required to provide schools that are adequate. That is, legislators must provide schools where students can learn well.
Since then, a key school performance indicator has worsened. A nationwide reading test showed that 72 percent of Alaska fourth-graders scored “below proficient” in reading in 2017. They’d fallen to the lowest rank among the states. Even 61 percent of Alaska white fourth-graders taking the test scored below proficient. They lagged almost a school year behind other white fourth-graders around the country. Anchorage fourth-graders overall scored near the middle of the Alaska pack and helped anchor the state in last place.
In addition, the state’s own reading test this year showed about 58 percent of Alaska’s public school students, including fourth-graders, are reading below the proficient level. An estimated 58 percent bad readers out of 130,000 Alaska students from kindergarten to 12th grade points to 75,000 kids behind in reading skills. Results show that in our schools, few will ever catch up.
W. James Smallwood and Mike Bronson volunteer with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Anchorage. They are fathers of public school students.
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