While education advocates continue to call for increased funding to go directly to Alaska public school districts, Gov. Mike Dunleavy on Tuesday introduced education policy proposals that would limit sexual education and the rights of gender non-conforming students in public schools.
“There should never be a case where a parent sends their kid to school, and the child comes back having discussions about things they learned in school that may be a sensitive issue or an affront to a parent’s values,” Dunleavy, a Republican, said while surrounded by a gaggle of conservative education advocates and children on Tuesday.
The “parental rights” measure would prohibit teaching sexual education before fourth grade, require written parental permission for children to participate in sexual education after fourth grade, require parents to sign off when a child asks to change their name or pronouns and require children to use locker rooms and restrooms according to their “biological sex.”
“Parents need to be able to say whether they want their children part of this or whether they don’t,” said Dunleavy, adding that issues relating to sex and gender are tied to “family values.”
That proposal was immediately rejected by Sen. Löki Tobin, an Anchorage Democrat who chairs the Senate Education Committee. Tobin said she would not hear the bill in her committee, and that the bipartisan majority that controls the chamber has vowed to steer away from divisive social issues.
“I don’t need to hear people justify discrimination,” Tobin said, calling the governor’s proposal “the most divisive piece of legislation you’ll possibly hear in the Alaska State Legislature this year.”
Tobin previously said she had been working with the governor’s office to find areas of agreement on increasing funding for public schools. She said the so-called “parental rights” proposal was a departure from Dunleavy’s more centrist approach, and that by putting it forward, he was turning gender non-conforming students — a small and vulnerable group — into “a political football.”
“It really does increase harm to young people,” Tobin said. “However you want to slice it — that’s what this bill does.”
In Florida, a bill passed last year earned the moniker “don’t say gay” bill because of its limits on teachers’ ability to talk about LGBTQ issues in schools. Dunleavy repeatedly said Alaska’s bill would be different.
“A Florida approach, for example, may prohibit certain things from being taught in the classrooms, regardless of what the parent wants,” Dunleavy said. “Any idea that this is a ‘don’t say gay’ bill or this is anti-anything — it’s not. It’s pro-parent.”
The proposal got a warmer reception in the more conservative-leaning Alaska House, where the education committee is co-chaired by Eagle River Republican Jamie Allard. She called Dunleavy’s education proposals “outstanding.”
“Parents have the right to decide what’s best for their children. Not strangers, not educators,” said Allard.
Alaska already has a parental notification statute that allows parents to opt out of sexual education classes for their children. That measure was championed by Dunleavy during his time in the state Senate, before he was elected governor. Allard said that’s not enough. But her House Education Committee co-chair, Soldotna Republican Rep. Justin Ruffridge, said he thinks school districts already do a good job of letting parents know about sexual education classes.
Dunleavy’s press office declined to release a copy of the legislation, which has not yet been introduced in the House or Senate. The governor announced the policy idea while surrounded by Anchorage School Board member Dave Donley, former Anchorage School District Superintendent Deena Bishop, members of the state board of education and members of the Mat-Su School Board. He argued that their presence and support for the bill signaled support from the education community.
“All I would ask is that when we go forward in this debate — is that you don’t discount these people or me because we may not agree on the narrative that some are trying to put forward,” Dunleavy said.
But members of the Anchorage School Board, representing the state’s largest school district, released a statement noting that Dunleavy’s “parental rights” proposal goes against the district’s existing policy for gender non-conforming students, which allows them to determine the name and pronouns by which they would like to be addressed without parental involvement. The district’s policy also says Anchorage students “are not required to use sex-segregated facilities that are inconsistent with their gender identity.” That policy has been around and largely unchanged since 2014, board members said.
Last year, Mat-Su school officials made it the first district in the state to ban transgender students from restrooms that match their gender identity.
Asked if he saw the “parental rights” measure as a condition for increasing state funding to public education, Dunleavy called it “a hypothetical” situation.
“We’re just introducing this approach now, so we want to give a little time so we have the discussions and we’ll see what occurs,” said Dunleavy.
‘A temporary fix’
Members of the Senate majority and House minority caucuses have consistently named increasing state funding for public schools as one of their top priorities for the legislative session, amid an ongoing budget crisis in public schools exacerbated by a years-long stretch with no significant increases to the formula used to calculate per-student funding.
But a teacher retention bonus also proposed by Dunleavy on Tuesday could lessen the urgency for an overall funding increase, some lawmakers suggested, even as education advocates wondered whether limited-time teacher bonuses could meaningfully address schools’ difficulties in attracting other essential workers.
“Yes, we have a teacher recruitment and retention problem, but we have a bus driver recruitment and retention problem, we have a superintendent recruitment and retention problem. Principals, administrators, clerical, classroom aides, paraprofessionals, nutrition specialists,” said Tom Klaameyer, president of the National Education Association of Alaska. “While the gesture means well, it doesn’t fully address the problem like fully funding a BSA increase and adjusting it for inflation. That’s a structural fix, rather than a temporary fix of bonuses for three years.”
Dunleavy’s teacher retention proposal would give annual bonuses to teachers in Alaska ranging from $5,000 per teacher for the state’s urban districts to $15,000 for the state’s most rural districts. The bonuses would be given to teachers once a year, at the conclusion of the coming three school years. Dunleavy said the goal would be to study the impacts of the bonuses at the conclusion of the three-year period.
Allard said Dunleavy’s teacher retention proposal, which would cost the state $58 million over three years, would “guarantee that the funds stay in the classroom.” Conservative lawmakers have repeatedly questioned whether too much education funding is spent on administrative costs, even as educators have produced finance reports indicating the vast majority of expenses qualify as classroom spending.
Rather than increasing the Base Student Allocation, Allard said she favored forming a task force to rethink how the state’s education funding is allocated to schools.
“There are too many questions that have to be answered. I think the formula is outdated and needs to be adjusted,” said Allard.
But Senate majority members reiterated on Tuesday their commitment to advancing an education spending boost this year independent of Dunleavy’s proposed teacher bonuses.
In a news media availability on Friday, Tobin previewed a new version for a bill championed by the Senate Education Committee. That bill would increase the per-student funding formula by $1,000 for the fiscal year that begins in July, and by an additional $348 for the following fiscal year, translating to a total cost of $257 million in additional state spending in the 2024 fiscal year, and $347 million in the 2025 fiscal year. The bill would also require school districts to gather and present information on their financial spending and on their high school graduates.
That measure is scheduled for review by the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday.
The governor also said on Tuesday that he intends to ask the Legislature to approve $17 million in new funding for the education department, including $5 million to support a reading bill that passed last year; $5 million for science education through the University of Alaska; $3 million for career and technical education; $3 million to develop alternative teacher preparation programs; and $1 million for Alaska Resource Education, a group that provides public school curriculum about resource extraction industries in Alaska.
Iris Samuels reported from Anchorage and Sean Maguire from Juneau.