Boosters of the Alaska Legislature’s biggest education overhaul in a decade are pushing to get the bill passed into law in their final weeks in Juneau, and warn that inaction could jeopardize a long-sought boost to classroom spending.
The wide-ranging measure, a version of which passed the state Senate this week, is a sort of grand bargain, with elements aimed at satisfying both progressive and conservative reformers.
It would boost inconsistent state spending on preschool, long a priority of Democratic lawmakers, by tens of millions of dollars a year for at least a decade. Conservatives would get more virtual courses and new tools aimed at helping young students struggling with reading.
The bill has drawn endorsements from across the political spectrum, with support for different components from the National Education Association union, the conservative Alaska Policy Forum and multiple school districts, including Anchorage’s.
At the same time, its wide-ranging pieces have some legislators eyeing the bill warily — and some rural and Native advocates have said it needs to be rewritten.
But both Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy and the bill’s original sponsor, Anchorage Democratic Sen. Tom Begich, suggest that failure to adopt policies like those included in the legislation could risk a veto of increased per-student schools spending that lawmakers are considering separately.
Supporters of the increase argue that schools are in desperate need after years of flat funding, amid rising inflation.
But Dunleavy, in an interview last month, cited Alaska’s worst-in-the-nation reading test scores, repeating an argument often made by political conservatives: that it makes little sense to boost spending on schools without simultaneously pursuing reforms.
“I would find it less responsible, if one of these reading bills doesn’t pass, to just add more money,” Dunleavy said. “I would have to have a much deeper conversation with the educational community as to what our goal is with everything we’re doing.”
The state Senate unanimously approved the 40-page Senate Bill 111 on Tuesday. It now moves to the House, where a separate version has lingered through a full year and a dozen hearings in the education committee.
Co-chair Rep. Andi Story, D-Juneau, said members first needed to hear more testimony from people directly involved in reading and teaching.
“Now we’ve just been reflecting and thinking, ‘Okay, is this really doing what we wanted to do?’” Story said in an interview last month. “We know reading’s important, and I think it can support districts. But we want to make sure it’s something that isn’t too big of a burden on districts — an unfunded mandate, so to speak — and good for all kids.”
Progressive and conservative reforms
The legislation has been under development for years, with Dunleavy and Begich proposing their first version in 2020.
The bill has evolved since then and now includes three main elements.
One creates a state-maintained virtual education library, with approved courses for both students and teachers.
A second is preschool, which has long been a priority for Alaska progressives.
They cite research that shows preschool producing “academic benefits, health improvements, reductions in crime,” higher earnings and lower reliance on government aid, according to a 2017 review by Alaska’s education department.
But state spending on such programs has been inconsistent: Dunleavy himself line-item vetoed millions of dollars for preschool and early learning in his first two years in office.
The new legislation would stabilize funding by allowing school districts to count children in education department-approved programs as half of a student, for the purposes of claiming state aid. State preschool spending would rise by an estimated $3 million each year, to $18 million annually by 2028.
That price tag would be balanced by the bill’s third core element: an extensive new reading program, with an array of testing and teaching provisions.
The program, according to a press release from the state Senate’s Republican-led majority, is based on a nationally recognized system known as the “Florida model,” or “Read By 9.”
Elements in SB 111 include a three-times-a-year test — the legislation refers to it as a less demanding “screening tool” — for students in kindergarten to third grade. For those identified as deficient, schools would have to offer “intensive reading intervention services” and individual improvement plans.
Students still struggling at the end of the school year could be held back if their parents agree. And third graders with end-of-year reading deficiencies, who get special attention in the legislation, can only advance to fourth grade if parents or guardians sign a waiver acknowledging they’re not prepared and agreeing that their child will do 20 hours of summer reading work.
Schools with the lowest average reading scores, meanwhile, could have state-paid reading specialists dispatched to work with teachers and students, and they’d be required to hold public meetings to share information about their efforts.
The approach has long been favored by conservatives, who say that adopting its data-driven framework would make them more comfortable boosting the budget for Alaska’s overall education system.
“It’s difficult, as a conservative Republican, being over here saying, ‘We’ve got to spend more money on education.’ But I do like this, because it’s spending with a plan,” said Anchorage Republican Sen. Roger Holland, chair of the Senate Education Committee.
The reading framework also has support from conservative groups like the Alaska Policy Forum, which floated its own draft legislation as part of a 2019 policy brief.
An aide to Begich acknowledged that the legislation used a “supporting document” from Alaska Policy Forum; she described that as evidence of the bill’s bipartisan approach, as the legislation also has support from the NEA union.
A need for ‘immediate relief’
The Senate version of the bill passed the chamber in a unanimous vote Tuesday, with five members absent.
But the legislation still must advance through the House education, finance and rules committees before getting a vote on the floor in that chamber. And that’s far from certain, with just over a month before the likely deadline for lawmakers to finish their work in Juneau.
In February, four rural members of the House majority coalition joined with three Alaska Native leaders in an opinion piece critiquing the bill. It called the legislation “fundamentally flawed” and said it doesn’t account for “the great difficulty getting teachers out to rural schools, period, much less the bill’s daunting requirement to hire and retain reading specialists necessary to ensure all children are reading by the third grade.”
The bill’s boosters note that provisions have been added in response to feedback from rural stakeholders. Those include broadening a department advisory panel of teachers, administrators and parents to include researchers with expertise in teaching Indigenous students, along with regional representation.
But in a phone interview this week, one of the opinion piece’s authors, Dillingham independent Rep. Bryce Edgmon, said the most urgent education-related messages he’s hearing are about the need to boost per-student spending, known as the BSA, or base student allocation. That’s where he’d like to focus attention, Edgmon said.
“Their biggest priority is the BSA increase. They need immediate relief,” Edgmon said. As for the broader education legislation, he added: “I’m going to look at this bill like I look at every other bill. If it’s harmful to rural Alaska, I’m going to oppose it.”
Edgmon’s majority this week advanced bills to boost the per-student spending formula, which could increase overall school costs by $70 million a year.
But Republicans like Dunleavy and Holland, in turn, say they’ll be less inclined to approve cost increases without simultaneously adopting measures like those in the broader education bill. That divide means that the House’s boost to schools spending could stall in the GOP-controlled state Senate, or face a gubernatorial veto.
Skeptics of the broader education bill privately suggest that Dunleavy’s veto threat could be empty: While he’s a conservative, he could risk a political backlash by slashing schools spending when he’s up for reelection a few months later.
But Begich, the education bill’s original sponsor, said he’s worked closely with Dunleavy and that the governor’s message is clear. In an interview, Begich said Dunleavy has told him directly that if Begich thinks there will be a boost to schools spending without a reading bill, “you’re probably mistaken.”
“I believe that he is true to that word. So, it’s my intent to get a reading bill so that we can have fair consideration of things like the BSA increase proposed by the House,” Begich said. “Making a political statement or taking a position just to show you’re good on education is not sufficient for me. And I think kids, parents, Alaskans ought to demand a hell of a lot more than that.”