Staff for Gov. Mike Dunleavy quashed the publication of a new Department of Labor and Workforce Development report examining the competitiveness of teacher pay in Alaska, an act that current and former staff say could damage the apolitical reputation of the division that publishes state economic data.
“This is data that typically is available to the public, and it’s never good to suppress good, objective data,” said Neal Fried, who retired in July after almost 45 years as an economist with the department.
The report, which had been the cover article in this month’s edition of Alaska Economic Trends, concludes that Alaska’s teachers are paid more than the national average but that the state’s “pay premium” has declined significantly since the 1980s.
In 1980, Alaska teachers’ pay was 170% of the national average; in 2022, they earned 111% of average, falling from first in the nation to 10th among the states and the District of Columbia.
The Alaska Beacon obtained a copy of the article — titled “Teachers’ shrinking wage advantage: Alaska used to pay the most, but now we’re tenth” — from a source outside the Department of Labor and independently verified its content. The Daily News obtained the unpublished report as well.
[Read the unpublished report: “Teachers’ shrinking wage advantage”]
Joshua Warren, the report’s author, declined comment on the decision to withhold publication, as did Sara Whitney, editor of Alaska Economic Trends.
Trends has been published monthly in some form since January 1961, making it a reliable source for economic data.
Dan Robinson, chief of the research and analysis section that publishes Alaska Economic Trends, said he’s never seen an article pulled from publication like this in his 20 years with the department.
Robinson submitted an opinion column to the Anchorage Daily News about the decision to withhold publication, and spoke to the Beacon on the condition that his comments be withheld until after the publication of the column.
“We spent nearly a week trying to find out what the governor’s office’s concerns were,” Robinson wrote in the ADN opinion column. “There was nothing unusual about the article to us — we’ve written about teachers before and the article included typical information about wages, tenure, job counts, and comparisons with employment and wage data from other states.”
Fried said he hasn’t heard of an article being pulled from publication previously, though it could have happened without his knowledge, he said. Fried, who worked as a state economist from 1978 through earlier this year, wrote more than 300 Alaska Economic Trends articles.
Robinson said he’s concerned about the reputation of the section, which handles economic data like unemployment and population figures.
Objectivity is “kind of fundamental to who we are and is our value to the state,” Robinson said.
“We serve every governor the same as the previous governor,” he said, “and that’s why I think it matters. You’re either nonpartisan or you’re not.”
A third party outside the Department of Labor provided copies of an email exchange about the decision to withhold publication.
According to those messages, which were independently verified, the Trends editor emailed a preview copy of the October edition to officials in the Department of Labor and the governor’s communications director, Jeff Turner, on Friday afternoon, Sept. 29, shortly before the issue was set to be distributed electronically.
It’s standard policy, Robinson and others said, to give an advance copy to the governor’s office, but that doesn’t ordinarily involve a publish-or-not decision.
Turner responded later that day: “Please put a HARD HOLD on this issue of Trends. Our DCOS Rachel Blysma needs to speak to Commissioner Munoz first.”
Deputy Chief of Staff Bylsma did not answer a phone call seeking comment on Monday. Turner, on personal leave, also could not be immediately reached by phone or email.
In a follow-up email later that weekend, Department of Labor Commissioner Cathy Muñoz told various officials, including Robinson, that “I think a lot of the heartburn comes in the title of the article. The GO was very firm in wanting the article pulled, but I’m willing to engage with them on a second look if we change the titles.”
That effort appears to be unsuccessful: The October issue of Alaska Trends was published late, without the information on teacher pay.
The decision to quash the article comes as Alaska school districts report problems hiring teachers. Earlier this year, Dunleavy vetoed $87.4 million in additional education funding, half of a $175 million one-time boost approved by the Legislature.
Some state lawmakers are advocating a permanent increase to education funding, saying that the state’s support has failed to keep pace with rising costs.
“I can see how political opponents of the current administration would misread the cover title to argue that the loss of our formerly significant wage advantage is Gov. Dunleavy’s fault,” Robinson said in an email provided to the Beacon. “Anyone who actually reads the article or looks at the line graph on the first page will see that’s not the case.”
By email on Monday, in response to questions from the Beacon, Muñoz said, “There was concern that one article originally planned for the October issue deviated from the publication’s standard of neutrality. As Commissioner for the Department, it is my responsibility to ensure that the information we put out is unbiased and fair. Accordingly, the article in question was not published as drafted in the October edition of Trends.”
Originally published by the Alaska Beacon, an independent, nonpartisan news organization that covers Alaska state government.