EDITORIAL: Who’s right in the rhetoric surrounding the Alaska READS Act?

Alaskans have many virtues, but patience isn’t often high on the list. That’s partly a consequence of our times — people watching 30-second online videos are conditioned to expect instant gratification. But it’s also engrained in the state’s character: Big swings in Alaska’s history have come quickly (think the gold rush, the military buildup during World War II, and the oil boom at Prudhoe Bay), so we’ve been trained to think that we don’t have to wait to ascertain the success or failure of our endeavors. It’s a particularly pernicious tendency in Alaska politics, too, whether the topic is criminal justice reform, oil tax rates or, most recently, education initiatives.

As education policy efforts go, the Alaska READS Act was a rare one from the outset — a collaborative, bipartisan effort that brought together figures as disparate as former Sen. Tom Begich and Gov. Mike Dunleavy in a play to improve outcomes for grade-school students. Now, with exactly one school year since the READS Act went into practice at Alaska schools, the governor’s administration is declaring ‘mission accomplished’ — and detractors are crying foul.

In touting what she and the administration see as the success of the READS Act, education commissioner and former Anchorage School District superintendent Deena Bishop pointed to incrementally improved test scores by Alaska students in the first year of the READS Act’s implementation. Skeptics replied ‘Not so fast,’ saying it’s too soon to be able to judge the law’s impact on students around the state.

Both Bishop and her critics are partially in the right. It’s true that we can’t judge the effectiveness of a new law with so little data, nor should we expect to be able to. There’s a real danger in claiming victory too soon — political history is littered with initiatives that showed promise before fizzling. But those seeking to deny the administration a win with the new law are just as guilty of short-sighted thinking: By downplaying the READS Act’s promising start, they encourage the abandonment of the new approach before it gets a fair shake. Alaska can neither afford to declare the act a success and immediately shift focus to other areas, nor should it kneecap the law before its effects on students’ reading ability can be properly assessed.

So far, the Alaska READS Act is off to a promising start. As Bishop said, test scores are up, and we should hope that trend continues. But we can’t take our eye off the ball by pivoting to other hot-button issues. And we shouldn’t cancel the initiative before it has a chance to work. As Kenai superintendent Clayton Holland reminded us recently, Mississippi’s version of the READS Act has been in place for eight years, with continuous support from the state government, and its impacts have only recently come to at least partial fruition.

Alaskans won’t likely see an opportunity anytime soon to learn patience during another resource rush. Given that, it would behoove us to practice by giving the Alaska READS Act the time it takes to properly gauge its merits.

Anchorage Daily News editorial board

Editorial opinions are by the editorial board, which welcomes responses from readers. Board members are ADN President Ryan Binkley, Publisher Andy Pennington and Opinion Editor Tom Hewitt. The board operates independently from the ADN newsroom. To submit feedback, a letter or longer commentary for consideration, email commentary@adn.com.