Alaska Legislature

The Alaska Reads Act narrowly passed the Legislature. Policymakers are still divided on its benefits.

The Alaska Legislature passed one of the state’s biggest education overhauls in a decade before adjourning last week, leaving policymakers bitterly divided over a wide-ranging reading bill and a boost to per-student schools spending.

The reading package adopts new testing tools and interventions favored by Alaska conservatives, who cite student scores that are among the nation’s lowest.

The legislation’s Democratic supporters say those measures are balanced by the one-time schools spending bump and the tens of millions of dollars that the reading bill budgets for a major expansion of state-sponsored preschool, a longtime progressive priority.

But last week’s debate exposed harsh, personal disagreements about the bill, and a messy legislative process that left many lawmakers and some school administrators questioning the results.

After the measure unanimously passed the Senate last month, last week’s House debate pitted members of the largely Democratic majority caucus against one another. Lawmakers fought over whether the reading bill was worth accepting in exchange for a permanent, 0.5% increase in per-student spending, plus a one-time, $57 million injection beyond that.

Anchorage Democratic Sen. Tom Begich, one of the reading bill’s main supporters, has described the legislation as the only way to secure the spending increase for schools, since Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy was threatening a veto unless the budget boost came with broader reforms.

“Politics is not the art of the perfect. It’s the art of the possible,” Begich said in a phone interview. “I cannot have been more disappointed that my colleagues chose politics over policy on this matter of such critical importance to Alaska kids.”

But Dillingham independent Rep. Bryce Edgmon, one of the House majority’s most strident critics of the reading legislation, called the dilemma between the reading bill and the spending increase a false choice.

And he blasted the way the measure passed — by supporters grafting it to another bill at the last minute on the Senate floor, after the House’s education committee had rejected it.

“It only went through the process because of a political imperative that was created, and essentially got stuffed back in our faces in the House,” Edgmon said. He added: “Do you think the governor is going to veto $57 million in badly needed money when he needs those votes to get re-elected?”

Dunleavy praised the legislation at his post-session news conference last week, as his education commissioner, Michael Johnson, called it a “great day for students in Alaska.” Dunleavy is expected to sign the bill.

[Previously: Proposed big budget boost for Alaska schools could be derailed without conservative-driven reading reforms]

How the bill works

The Alaska Reads Act’s passage, which was unanimous in the Senate and approved in a 21-19 vote in the House, came after years of work from the measure’s proponents, including Begich and members of Dunleavy’s administration.

The bill evolved during the legislative process. But it has three core elements.

One is the reading program, modeled on initiatives that conservatives see as success stories in states like Florida and Colorado.

The bill calls for students in kindergarten through third grade to be tested on their reading skills three times a year, with specific evaluation of skills like vocabulary, “phonemic awareness” and “letter word sound fluency.”

Newly established, targeted programs and state support would go toward students found to be reading behind grade level. Districts would be required to offer an “individual reading improvement plan” and “intensive reading intervention services” to students whose test scores show they’re behind, including daily small group instruction and support for reading at home.

Students who are still behind at the end of the school year, according to the test required by the legislation, would have a meeting scheduled between school staff and their parents, who would consider whether to hold the student back from the next grade. The state education department would support the lowest-performing 25% of schools by dispatching “reading specialists,” who would work directly with students, coach teachers and staff and report back to the state on school and student results.

The reading specialists would be required to do coursework in Indigenous language learning and “culturally responsive education” before being hired.

The bill’s reading-related components will cost the state around $2.3 million annually, ending in 2034.

The second provision is the expansion of state-sponsored preschool, which is favored by progressives because it’s been shown to produce academic and health improvements, higher earnings and reduced crime for students later in life. The legislation would boost state spending on preschool by up to $3 million each year, Begich said — though the money can only go to programs that meet state standards — with projections calling for the yearly preschool budget to grow to $15 million within five years.

The spending will cover adding as many as 640 children to preschool programs each year, with those in underperforming districts given priority.

The third provision creates a state-maintained virtual education library, with approved courses for both students and teachers. That will cost the state $1.4 million each year.

The legislation made it through the Senate last month, but it ran into opposition in the House. Four Bush Caucus members, including Edgmon, signed an opinion piece saying the bill didn’t do enough to account for the challenges of rural education.

House members held more than a dozen hearings on the bill in the education committee and ultimately rewrote it. Their version would have established a division of cultural education to better acknowledge and emphasize Alaska Native heritage in schools.

It also would have included a roughly 4% boost to the per-student funding formula, and created a pension program to attract better teachers and reduce turnover.

But the committee’s members still voted against advancing the legislation, with Bethel Democratic Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, one of the signers of the opinion piece, joining Republican committee members to kill the bill. She said she was worried lawmakers would strip the legislation of its new components by the time it passed both chambers.

“My concern about this bill is not political gamesmanship,” Zulkosky said. “I had deep concerns rooted in the protection of Alaska Native students, Alaska Native language-speaking students, as well as small rural schools that such a policy if enacted would unintentionally disadvantage these groups relative to their peers.”

After death in House, bill revived in the Senate

With the House Education Committee’s version of the reading bill dead and just a week left in the legislative session, Begich and his allies in the Senate adopted new tactics.

They found a comparatively non-controversial bill that had already passed the House — one that addressed caps on state-sponsored student loans — and attached a new, 43-page version of Alaska Reads Act to it, in the form of an amendment.

Lawmakers used that kind of maneuver to pass an array of bills in the closing days of their session. In this case, it allowed the reading bill to go straight from the Senate to the House floor for an up-or-down vote, bypassing the education committee that previously rejected it.

The 21 House votes in favor of the measure came from an unusual alliance. Just five members of the majority caucus — including House Speaker Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak — joined 15 members of the Republican minority and an unaffiliated Republican, Rep. Sarah Rasmussen of Anchorage.

Anchorage Democratic Rep. Geran Tarr, one of the few majority members to vote for the bill, said she took seriously the possibility that Dunleavy could veto increased schools funding without broader reforms to education. And she said the inclusion of the preschool program made it worth accepting the legislation’s reading provisions.

“This is the first time there’s ever been a bill to implement statewide pre-K. It has been a dream, a goal, a mission, a passion, but there has never been legislation to actually achieve that,” Tarr said. “I know there are some concerns about the reading part. But what we know about early learning is, it absolutely prepares our students to be good readers.”

One other House majority member who voted for the bill was Nome Democratic Rep. Neal Foster, who serves as co-chair of the chamber’s finance committee.

Foster didn’t respond to a request for comment. But critics of the reading bill pointed to another last-minute Senate maneuver — a one-page amendment to the legislation — that they said pressured Foster into voting yes.

The amendment grafted yet another bill, House Bill 413, to the reading legislation. It fixes a technical problem in the state’s schools spending formula that cost a single school district in Foster’s area roughly $1 million when it opened a charter school.

Begich said he thought a more important factor in Foster’s decision to vote for the bill was support that Foster had heard from the superintendent in Nome, his district’s hub town.

An ‘insult,’ or a worthwhile spending boost?

A week after the reading bill’s passage, lawmakers remained divided about whether they advanced the cause of Alaska students and schools, or set it back.

Within the Alaska Reads Act, the Legislature also approved a $30 boost to the $5,930 per-student schools spending formula, which equates to a roughly 0.5% increase.

They also added a total of $57 million more — roughly $222 per student — for schools to the annual budget, though that money is a one-time boost and not permanently enshrined in state law like the $30 formula increase.

Before the reading bill passed, Alaska administrators and teachers were asking for urgent action from lawmakers to increase spending. They said schools are in crisis because the per-student formula hasn’t been raised in the past seven years, even as districts are being hammered by inflation.

[‘No cost is going down’: Alaska schools cut positions and scrape to pay heating bills amid flat funding]

In interviews, some lawmakers said the $30 per-student increase was too small to make a meaningful difference and should have been rejected. Anchorage Democratic Rep. Harriet Drummond, who chairs the House Education Committee, called the boost an “insult,” and said it “doesn’t even pay for one book.”

“When we work in the future to get a meaningful BSA increase, that’s going to be pushed back into our faces: ‘Hey, you already got a BSA increase. Why do you want another one?’” said Edgmon, the Dillingham independent.

Edgmon is one of a number of lawmakers who have argued that a better policy change would address Alaska schools’ struggles to retain teachers.

As it rewrote the reading bill, the House Education Committee said that districts with better retention rates also have higher reading scores, and it proposed reinstating a more generous retirement package for teachers. But that provision was left out of the Senate’s final version.

Begich, in a phone interview, rejected the argument against the $30 increase in per-student spending, saying the small boost is meaningful given how formula spending has stagnated in recent years.

If Dunleavy is re-elected in November, Begich added, it’s unlikely that Alaska schools will get another chance at an increase next year. And if one of Dunleavy’s more progressive opponents is elected, Begich added, an additional boost is likely.

Begich said of the members of the House majority who opposed the reading bill, and the formula boost, said privately that they did so to block Dunleavy from scoring a political victory.

“I’m tired of playing politics with education,” Begich said. “You’re either going to follow up and do what you say, or you’re going to do nothing.”

In interviews, school administrators offered mixed opinions on the outcome of the legislative session. But some who questioned the reading legislation and the $30-per-student spending boost did not want to be quoted, saying they were concerned about the potential for backlash.

Edgmon said he’s worried that his rural districts, in Southwest Alaska, may not be able to compete with urban districts for the limited pool of preschool funding set aside by the reading bill.

‘It doesn’t have to be onerous’

Some administrators have said they’re concerned that the legislation doesn’t contain enough money to support the reading programs it’s requiring districts to launch — though they note that the details won’t become clear until the state education department writes the formal regulations implementing the bill.

Most provisions in the bill won’t take effect for more than a year.

“No one has sat down and gone over the finer details of the bill at a district administration level to know what that’s going to take,” Katie Parrott, the Ketchikan School District’s business manager, told the Ketchikan Daily News. “We probably won’t know for quite a while what it’s really going to take, in terms of human capital or staffing resources or actual resources, like supplies or testing.”

Many of the reading-related mandates in the legislation are actually things that districts are already doing, said Jamie Burgess, superintendent of Nome Public Schools; they screen children to assess their reading level, and talk with parents about the results.

While some administrators are anxious about the reading improvement plans that the bill requires for struggling students, Burgess said, the legislation doesn’t mandate any level of depth or complexity.

“There’s nothing in there that says what the individual learning plan has to look like. It doesn’t have to be onerous — it’s up to the district,” she said. “A lot of those things are already there, they’re already in place. There’s a lot of good things in there.”

One other source of anxiety is the $57 million in one-time spending, because of the potential for lawmakers to leave that money out of future years’ budgets, said Larry LeDoux, the retiring superintendent of Kodiak’s school district.

But, LeDoux added, he’s “grateful for every dollar.” And he said the reading bill could help students even if their schools are struggling with teacher or administrator turnover.

“If you have a young reader who may have a different principal every year, a different superintendent or a different teacher, it’s very difficult to provide consistency of instruction during those critical primary years,” he said. The new bill’s framework, he added, ensures that kids can learn to read “regardless of whether you have a new superintendent, principal or teacher.”

Iris Samuels

Iris Samuels is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News focusing on state politics. She previously covered Montana for The Associated Press and wrote for the Kodiak Daily Mirror.

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