State education officials have agreed to spend more to help some struggling rural schools, in exchange for the settlement of a long-running lawsuit in which the state was found to not be meeting its constitutional obligation to provide an adequate education.
The settlement would only affect a small number of the state’s students, but was praised by both sides as a way of ending a divisive chapter and getting everyone working together.
“It’s a positive step for kids in Alaska and Alaskans in general,” said Mike Hanley, commissioner of the Department of Education & Early Development.
Citizens for the Educational Advancement of Alaska’s Children (CEACC) sued the department, which was represented at the agreement signing ceremony Thursday by Executive Director Charles Wohlforth.
CEACC is made up of a 22, mostly rural school districts, including those in Gustavus, Hoonah, and Angoon and elsewhere.
Under the settlement, some rural schools will get help with retaining teachers and offering an extra year of kindergarten, at a one-time cost of $18 million.
The settlement agreement targets help to the 40 of the state’s lowest performing schools, mostly in Interior and Western Alaska.
Some of the money will be used to provide two years of kindergarten in the 40 lowest-performing schools, while other help could go to other schools.
Hanley said the agreement acknowledges the state’s responsibility to those schools.
“It recognized the need we have to support them and provide assistance to those schools, Hanley said.
Those 40 schools have 4,533 students, or about 3.5 percent of the state’s K-12 students. The $18 million settlement amount is about one-tenth of a percent of the state’s projected $1.6 billion education budget for next year.
One Southeast school is on the list of the state’s 40 worst performing schools, Naukati Bay on Prince of Wales Island. Twenty-two students attended it last year.
House Education Committee Chairman Alan Dick, R-Stony River, called the settlement “a glorious day for education in Alaska,” at the signing ceremony.
Also at the ceremony was Rep. Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, who later said while he was happy to see an end to the gridlock on the case, it leaves much more to be done to improve education.
“I was hoping to have more come out of it than that,” he said.
“Eighteen million dollars is clearly not going to be enough to solve this broad span of problems,” Wohlforth said.
What it will do is show the programs that work, however, he said.
Plaintiffs in the Moore case had questioned the constitutionality of the state’s school system.
Anchorage Superior Court Judge Sharon Gleason found the state was constitutionally required to provide an adequate education, even when it delegated delivery of the education to local school districts.
It must supervise them to ensure students are getting an adequate education, she said.
Another part of the settlement agreement is the creation of a new “Moore Committee” which will oversee the agreement and the spending of the money.
That committee, appointed by the department and CEACC, will make sure the money is spent according to the agreement.
“One of the best outcomes was hearing that committee will keep working together, Tuck said
The case was first filed in 2004, with settlement talks beginning about 10 months ago under then-Attorney General John Burns, Hanley said.
Wohlforth said he met a 4-year-old girl in a village he didn’t name, and said he realized without extra help, the school she’d be going to would likely not be able to provide her an adequate education.
“Are we prepared to accept the waste of human potential when a child like that is not given a chance?” he asked.
Hanley pledged to work with the districts to implement the agreement and find out what the needs are, and the to meet them.
Wohlforth said that would help the village girl he saw.
“We can give her an educational leg up,” he said.
The settlement still requires money to be appropriated by the Legislature for it to take effect. Legislators at the signing ceremony indicated they thought there would be support for the necessary appropriations.
• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.