JUNEAU -- Sex education teachers in Alaska will have to be vetted by local school boards under a bill now headed to the floor of the Alaska Senate.
House Bill 156 would also bar the state education department from requiring statewide standardized tests until at least the spring of 2019.
An amendment passed Friday, however, said that if the federal government threatened to withhold funding, the state could resume mandating testing before then. The state education department already has to answer to the federal government about why it canceled this year's glitchy standardized test, a test required by federal law.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Wes Keller, R-Wasilla, moved out of the Senate Finance committee Saturday morning.
Restrictions on sex ed
First, the Senate Finance committee altered a proposal from Sen. Mike Dunleavy, R-Wasilla, to restrict who can teach sex ed classes. An amendment from Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, erased a Dunleavy requirement for sex ed instructors to have a teaching license, though the bill still requires a certified teacher to supervise a sex ed class.
More notably, the bill would require the instructor and the curriculum, literature or materials for the course to be approved by the local school board.
"There's no more going through the back door, side doors. Everyone has to come through the front door, go through the school board, should be approved," Dunleavy said in an interview Saturday.
Dunleavy had wanted sex ed classes to be taught only by a person with a teaching license, which organizations like Planned Parenthood saw as a last-minute effort to resurrect another piece of legislation, Senate Bill 89. In that bill, Dunleavy sought to ban abortion providers from schools. The bill died in a 5-2 House Health and Social Services committee vote on Wednesday.
Rep. Paul Seaton, who chairs the House Health and Social Services committee, said he was concerned SB 89 would lead to less sex ed in schools and more sexually transmitted diseases and unplanned pregnancies, and could have restricted constitutional rights of freedom of association.
Later that day, while chairing the Senate Education committee, Dunleavy added the certification requirement for sex ed instructors into Keller's bill.
The change drew testimony from nearly 50 people during a hearing on Friday. Most opposed Dunleavy's proposal and called it an effort to limit sex ed in schools, though others applauded the change and said it protected parents' rights.
Several others said they supported Keller's bill, except for Dunleavy's provisions about sex ed.
With Micciche's amendment, Dunleavy said, the bill would require school boards to vet those groups or instructors publicly. He also noted that school districts will be required to give parents two weeks' notice of sex ed courses or activities, and notify parents of the instructor's credentials.
As for abortion providers, Dunleavy said, "There may be school districts that don't want certain groups in their school district, so I think that takes care of the issues."
Sen. Donny Olson, D-Golovin, had voiced concerns about whether the bill would allow visiting health workers in rural communities to guest-teach sex ed courses. Micciche said yes, as long as the curriculum and presenter had been approved by the local school board.
Dunleavy also said he wanted to get rid of spontaneity.
"A school district should have a plan to teach kids," Dunleavy said. "They shouldn't be winging it day by day, moment by moment."
Planned Parenthood, which says it's being targeted by Dunleavy, said it was evaluating Saturday how HB 156 would affect its operations. The organization says it provides sex education to about 2,000 students across the state, as well as resources to schools and school nurses.
A spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood Northwest, Jessica Cler, said the bill still appeared to increase barriers to sex education in Alaska.
"This still treats sexual health education differently than any other subject, and adds additional burdens onto already-strapped schools," Cler said.
Christopher Kurka, the executive director of Alaska Right to Life, one of the main groups that supported SB 89, said he hadn't yet seen the new sex ed provisions and couldn't immediately comment Saturday.
After the demise of SB 89, his organization released a statement Thursday that repeated accusations toward House Republican leadership of intentionally killing the bill, despite "thousands" of signatures that had been gathered in support of it.
With Dunleavy's amendments, if adopted by the Senate, HB 156 will have to go back to the House for a vote.
Suspending standardized tests
Under the original language of Keller's bill, HB 156, Alaska's education department could not require school districts to administer a statewide standardized test between July 1, 2016, and July 1, 2018. This would likely keep a mandatory statewide test off schools' calendars until spring 2019.
But federal law requires states to annually test students in grades three through eight and once in high school. If the state doesn't adhere to the law, it could face a range of repercussions, including the loss of federal funding.
Without a state accountability system that meets federal requirements, a financial analysis attached to the original version of HB 156 found that Alaska could potentially lose $99.3 million in federal funds next budget year.
Some lawmakers balked at that number. Keller said in an interview Wednesday that his bill would "put a pause button" on the state's annual testing schedule. It would require the state education department to work with school districts and develop the next statewide test, he said. Keller said he didn't think the state would lose federal money if the original bill passed.
"These people in the U.S. Department have sincere interest in making this work on behalf of the kids," he said.
Rep. Lora Reinbold, R-Eagle River, co-sponsored the bill. She said in an interview Wednesday that the state needs a test that is "cost-efficient, fair and reliable." She also said she didn't think suspending testing in Alaska would affect funding.
"I think it's a threat, a bullying technique, and I do not believe that they are going to withhold funds," she said.
Ultimately, the Senate Finance committee passed an amendment Friday that entered a caveat to the testing suspension: If the U.S. Department of Education provided notice that it intended to withhold all or part of the state's federal funding, Alaska's education department could again require school districts to administer statewide standardized tests.
The bill would also establish in law a parent's right to withdraw a child from the testing.
Susan McCauley, Alaska's interim education commissioner, said in an interview last week that regardless of what happened with Keller's bill, the education department would continue with its plan to work with educators and find a new test vendor for next spring. Even if the department is barred from requiring school districts to give the test in spring 2017, she said, it would still offer one that districts could choose to give.
Meanwhile, the state education department has to answer to the federal government about canceling this year's statewide standardized test, called the Alaska Measures of Progress, or AMP.
The computer-based test lasted for four days this spring. On the morning of the first day of testing, March 29, some school districts started to report blank screens where questions and answers should have been, McCauley said. Then a backhoe tore through a cable line at the University of Kansas, home to the test developer, and severed students' connection to the exam.
Testing resumed two days later, only to have the system crash again. Some students lost their answers. The next day, a Friday, McCauley announced that she was canceling the statewide exams.
McCauley said she had no plans to resume testing this spring and the federal government had not asked her to. Alaska schools had a six-week window to administer the computer-based test. Three weeks remain.
"We made several attempts in one week and it didn't work," McCauley said.
McCauley said her staff continued to work on collecting data for the U.S. Department of Education to show exactly what went wrong and how many students had their test results invalidated. She said she remained confident in the decision to cancel the exam.
In a brief statement Monday, Dorie Nolt, press secretary at the U.S. Department of Education, said the annual tests are required by federal law and some states in the past have spent weeks trying to fix technical problems with their own tests.
"In the past, when states have faced technical challenges, they have worked — sometimes over a period of many weeks — to find a remedy," Nolt said in the statement. "If a state is unable to administer their statewide assessment after repeated attempts, the Department will consider whether the state made every effort to meet its obligation under the law."