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Initiative group forms to boost educational support and performance in Alaska

  • Author: Alex DeMarban
  • Updated: August 2, 2019
  • Published August 2, 2019

In the wake of Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s cuts to education funding, a new group on Friday took the first step to put a measure before voters next year to ensure students of all ages have access to a high-quality education.

Alaskans for Excellent Public Education would amend state law to ensure public schools, early childhood learning programs and the state university system have sufficient state support to improve student performance, a statement from the group said. The group also seeks to improve access to education statewide for students of all ages.

“I hope this encourages leaders to support students from their early years and through college,” said Amy Jo Meiners, the group’s chair and a retired Juneau elementary school teacher who was named 2016 Alaska Teacher of the Year. “If we want children to remain in Alaska, we have to give them these opportunities.”

She said the problem is bigger than the current state budget fight. Alaska’s leadership for years hasn’t done enough to support early childhood education, she said.

The group launched as educators across Alaska struggle to respond to Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s June 28 vetoes, including $130 million cut from the state university system -- about 40% of state funding. The governor also vetoed $6.8 million from the Head Start early childhood education program and $1.2 million in early childhood grants for school districts.

The governor has often characterized educational outcomes in Alaska as poor, and state educational costs as too high, to help justify his cuts.

The Legislature this week passed House Bill 2001 restoring $110 million to the university system, and restoring the early childhood funding. But the proposals must survive the governor’s veto pen.

The initiative group’s proposed changes to state law would set basic parameters for the state to ensure that schools can provide appropriate class-sizes, teacher workloads and teacher pay, among other things, to support classroom learning. It also provides benchmarks to improve student and school outcomes.

“It would inject best-available practices into funding decisions, rather than politics guiding funding decisions,” said Scott Kendall, attorney for the group, who was chief of staff to former Gov. Bill Walker. Kendall is also counsel to the Recall Dunleavy campaign.

A coalition of educators wanted to create the new initiative group, he said.

The initiative group submitted a ballot measure application on Friday to the state, the statement said. It had well over the 100 required sponsor signatures, Kendall said.

Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer has 60 days after receiving the application to accept or deny it. The group would have a year to gather 28,501 signatures from registered voters, or 10% of the number of people who voted in the state’s last general election. A minimum number of signatures must come from 30 of 40 of the state’s House Districts.

The group hopes to get the measure on the ballot for the November 2020 election.

Joining Meiners on the initiative committee are Alexander Jorgensen, a University of Alaska Anchorage student and executive in the student government, and Rabbi Abram Goodstein, an early childhood education advocate.